July 19: 1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6, 14; Jude 19-20

Today’s note continues (from the one previous) the survey of references to the Spirit in 1 Peter and Jude.

1 Peter 3:18-19

The exhortation and ethical instruction in 1 Pet 3:13-22 continues the eschatological orientation from the prior sections of the letter. This is fully in keeping with much early Christian instruction (in the New Testament), where the need for believers to conduct themselves in a holy and upright manner takes on special urgency, due to the nearness of the coming Judgment. Thus, we should not be surprised when the author (Peter) draws upon the ancient tradition of the great Flood (vv. 19-20ff) to expound and illustrate the instruction in vv. 13-16ff. By the mid/late-1st century A.D., the Flood, through which God judged the world of old, had come to be seen as a type-pattern for the end-time Judgment. This usage goes back to at least the 6th century B.C. (cf. the Isaian “Apocalypse”, chaps. 24-27), and was well-established by the time our letter was written (cf. my earlier article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”).

The instruction in vv. 17-18 provides the transition to the Flood illustration that follows. The key point is the contrast between death in the flesh, and life in the Spirit. This essentially reproduces the same dualistic contrast found regularly in Paul’s letters, and is tied to the same central (Pauline) theme—of believers’ participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Such participation is symbolized in the baptism ritual (cf. the explicit reference to baptism in vv. 20b-21). In verse 18, it is Jesus’ own death and resurrection that is in view:

“(For it is) also that (the) Anointed suffered one time over sins, a just (person) over (the) unjust (one)s, (so) that he would lead the way for us toward God—(on the one hand) being put to death in (the) flesh, but (one the other) being made alive in (the) Spirit.”

Believers experience new life from the dead, in the Spirit, even as Jesus himself did. This emphasis on resurrection from the dead leads to the rather enigmatic reference in v. 19 on Jesus’ encounter with “the spirits in (the prison) guard” —that is, the realm of the dead and those who are imprisoned there. The precise nature of this episode is not entirely clear, and interpretations continue to be debated by commentators today. In particular, it is not clear whether the “spirits” refer to divine/heavenly beings (i.e. [fallen] Angels) who were punished, or to the human beings who perished in the flood. Probably the former is primarily in view in v. 19; however, it is clear that the author has the latter in mind as well, and, indeed, it serves as the basis for the subsequent instruction in 4:1-6.

1 Peter 4:6, 14

The focus in the instruction of 4:1-6 is on the need for believers to remain faithful, with the expectation that they will endure suffering as the current Age nears it end. According to the traditional view, the end-time is a period of ever-increasing wickedness and godlessness, comparable to the condition of the world prior to the great Flood. A similar Judgment is coming upon humankind, as stated clearly in verse 5—it is a judgment that will apply to “(the) living and (the) dead”, that is, those who are currently alive and those who have died. This juxtaposition of life vs. death prompts the author (Peter) to recall the instruction from 3:18ff, with its contrast between death in the flesh and life in the Spirit (cf. above). The Gospel is proclaimed to all people, even those who are dead—understood both literally and figuratively—so that they can live in the Spirit. Again this ‘life from the dead’ is to be understood in both a concrete and symbolic sense—the promise of resurrection (in the future), along with the experience of new life in the Spirit (realized for believers in the present). The precise wording in verse 6 is interesting:

“…that they would be judged (on the one hand) according to men, in (the) flesh, but (on the other) according to God, in (the) Spirit.”

The judgment in the flesh, “according to men”, can be understood on two levels:

    • All human beings face the Judgment in the sense that they/we all die physically (“in the flesh”), and
    • All people will be judged for the things done during their/our earthly life (i.e. done “in the flesh”)

Believers face this same judgment, but with a different end result—they/we pass through it, into eternal life. This life also includes the raising of the physical body from the dead. It is only believers who experience this other side of the Judgment, “according to God” —that is, according to our identity as sons/children of God, realized through union with Christ and the abiding presence of the Spirit. This identity is well expressed in verse 14:

“If you are reproached in (the) name of (the) Anointed [i.e. because you are Christ’s], happy (are you), (in) that [i.e. because] the honor [do/ca] and the Spirit [pneu=ma] of God rest upon you.”

In other words, to be “in Christ” means that God’s Spirit is upon us, and that all that happens to us on account of Christ’s name will end in our sharing the honor/glory (do/ca) of God, which already “rests” upon us. The idea of heavenly reward here accords well with the beatitude-form (on this, cf. my earlier study).

Jude 19-20

At the close of the short letter of Jude, we find two references to the Spirit, both of which are well-founded on early Christian tradition, such as we have seen in the Pauline letters (and elsewhere). Verse 19 comes at the end of the main body of the letter, which is comprised of a series of forceful instructions (and warnings) regarding the threats to true Christian faith and teaching that have arisen (and continue to grow) at the end-time. The particular eschatological orientation, as it is expressed, is very close to that of 2 Peter, and most commentators posit some sort of relationship between the two letters.

Especially significant is the way that the wickedness of the end-time is seen as having infiltrated the Christian congregations. This outlook is typical of many of the later writings of the New Testament, in the period c. 60-100 A.D. We find it, for example, prominently as a feature of the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), the Johannine letters, and (as noted above) 2 Peter. False believers are seen as exerting a baleful influence over the congregations, to the point of drawing some away from the true faith; certainly, such a danger is considered to be present. In vv. 17-18, the presence and activity of such false/wicked Christians is said to be a fulfillment of early Christian prophecies regarding the end-time (cp. Acts 20:29ff; 1 Tim 4:1ff; 2 Tim 3:1ff; also 1 John 2:18ff; 4:1-3). Here is how the author of the letter (“Jude”) summarizes these ‘false’ believers:

“These are the (one)s separating from (the things) marked out, (hav)ing (only a) soul [yuxikoi/], (but) not holding (the) Spirit.”

The adjective yuxiko/$ is extremely difficult to translate in English. I discussed Paul’s use of it in 1 Cor 2:14; 15:44, 46, where he contrasts it with pneumatiko/$. The latter is typically translated as “spiritual”, for which there is no corresponding English to render the former (i.e., “soulish”). Yuxiko/$ is often translated blandly as “natural”, but this is rather inaccurate and misleading. As the terms are contrasted by Paul, they clearly have the basic meaning “having (only) a soul” and “having the Spirit”, respectively. Non-believers do not have the Spirit, but only a soul; while believers, on the other hand, hold the Spirit in addition to their soul. This meaning is confirmed by the usage here in verse 19, as well as in James 3:15 (the only other occurrence of yuxiko/$ in the New Testament). The false believers are like the rest of humankind, possessing a soul but living without the Spirit of God.

Another characteristic of the ‘false’ believers, is that they separate from (a)po/) the things “marked out” (root vb o(ri/zw) and by God—i.e. the Gospel and the established (apostolic) traditions, etc. More to the point, this means that they do not belong to the gathering of the true believers. The wording here, using the compound verb a)podiori/zw, compares with what the author of 1 John says of the ‘false’ believers there: that they separated, going out from the true believers, into the world (2:19; 4:5-6; 2 John 7ff).

The reference to the Spirit in verse 20 has a different focus, emphasizing the need for believers to pray in the Spirit. On the specific association of the Spirit with prayer—and the special role the Spirit has in the prayer of believers—see Romans 8:26-27ff and the earlier note on Eph 6:17-18.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Conclusion

It is now time to bring this extensive (and rather lengthy) series to a close. In drawing together the strands of our study, we may begin with the three components of the early Christian eschatological chronology—the major events/divisions which mark the end-time:

    • The period of distress (qli/yi$) for humankind, a time of intense suffering and increasing wickedness, which includes the targeted persecution of believers in Christ. At the climax of this period, an especially wicked foreign ruler will arise (this detail is attested in the New Testament only in a limited way).
    • The appearance of the Messiah (Jesus) who will deliver God’s people (i.e. the righteous, believers) and bring about the great Judgment; this relates to the royal (Davidic) Messiah, as well as the heavenly-deliverer figure-type (“Son of Man”, in the sayings of Jesus).
    • The onset of the great, final Judgment, which marks the end of the current Age.

Early Christians inherited this basic chronology from the Jewish eschatology of the period, clearly expressed in a number of apocalyptic writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. (cf. Part 2 of the study “The Antichrist Tradition”). Among the early Christian writings and traditions, the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, as presented in the Synoptic Gospels, is perhaps the earliest attempt at a systematic framework for this eschatology—a point that is all the more likely if the Synoptic Discourse represents an editorial and literary assemblage of eschatological statements by Jesus, originally uttered on different occasions. Cf. my four-part study on the Discourse, earlier in this series, for a detailed analysis. Using the Markan version, here is the basic outline as it relates to the chronology noted above:

    • The end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, v. 19), which is described according to three specific aspects or points of emphasis:
      • Its affect on humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      • Its affect on Jesus’ disciples (believers, vv. 9-13)
      • Its affect on the people of Judea and Jerusalem, including believers (vv. 14-23)
    • The coming of the Son of Man (i.e. the Messiah, the return of Jesus, vv. 24-27)
    • [The final Judgment is alluded to in vv. 24-25, and also the warnings in vv. 32-37; cp. the parable additions in Matthew 25, esp. vv. 31-46]

Several important points should be reiterated regarding the early Christian eschatology:

    • It is tied specifically to a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, which encompasses several distinct Messianic figure-types; both his first coming and his second (return) were understood as eschatological—i.e. end-time events. For more on eschatology and Messianism, cf. the earlier article in this series.
    • The New Age began, for believers, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and is marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit; thus believers are experiencing the Age to Come, at least in part (through the Spirit), in the present, prior to the actual end of the current Age. This is what is commonly referred to as “realized” eschatology, and represents an important aspect of the overall eschatology.
    • The early Christian understanding of salvation was also primarily eschatological—that is, in terms of being saved/rescued from the coming end-time Judgment.
    • The coming of the end was imminent—believers were already living in the “last days / last hour”, and experiencing the period of distress, and that the return of Jesus (and the great Judgment) would come very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers (Mark 13:30 par, etc). For more on this, cf. below.
    • In spite of this sense of imminence, it was understood that there was at least a brief period during which Jesus’ disciples (believers) would engage in missionary work throughout the Roman Empire (the known world), bringing the Gospel and message of salvation to the nations.

Of all the Old Testament prophetic passages, it was the visions in the book of Daniel which exerted the most influence on early Christian eschatology, as indeed it did on much of Jewish eschatology in this period. The idea of the period of distress, phrased as it was often by the Greek word qli/yi$, seems to have been inspired directly by Daniel 12:1 LXX; indeed, chapter 12 was quite influential on the shaping of the eschatological worldview. We also have the important development of the “wicked tyrant” motif (cf. Part 1 of “The Antichrist Tradition”), realized in the figure of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who would serve as a type-pattern for the wicked ruler of the end-time. This pattern would be fulfilled, in the first-century B.C./A.D., by a number of Roman rulers—Pompey, Gaius (Caligula), Nero—which further shaped the early Christian expectation. It was especially the historical tradition of the desecration of the Temple sanctuary, etc, in 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11) which influenced the Christian portrait of the end-time wicked ruler, and played an enormous role in the subsequent development of the Antichrist Tradition (cf. Part 3 of the aforementioned study). Dan 9:27 is alluded to clearly in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14 par), and Paul seems to be drawing upon the same line of tradition in 2 Thess 2:3-12 (cf. the study on that passage). The book of Revelation regularly draws upon the visions of Daniel—especially on the chapter 7 vision, of the ‘beast’ that comes up out of the Sea, in Rev 13ff. The opposition to God and His people, and the attack on true religion, by the wicked ruler, was interpreted almost entirely in terms of the persecution of believers in Christ; during the end-time period of distress, and its climax under the wicked (‘antichrist’) ruler, this persecution would be at its most intense and widespread.

Final Note on the Imminent Eschatology of early Christians

I have repeatedly noted—and documented extensively—in this series the imminent eschatology of early Christians which is expressed throughout the New Testament. On this, cf. especially the two-part study devoted to the subject, with the accompanying note on some of the key (and most controversial) Gospel passages. While this aspect of New Testament eschatology is clear enough, it creates considerable difficulty for believers today, especially those with a strong belief in the unique and divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Could the inspired authors have been mistaken about how soon the end would come? So acute is this problem, that many commentators are unwilling or reluctant to admit the rather obvious language of imminence in the eschatological passages, or attempt to soften and generalize its significance in various ways (cf. below).

To be sure, this is one of the most difficult aspects of interpretation today, at least for those who are willing to admit and face it head on. There is no easy solution to the problem. I have touched on the matter, both in the introduction to this series, and in Part 2 on the aforementioned study, presenting a number of possible avenues for approaching the problem. Here are four approaches which I have outlined previously:

    • The New Testament authors, like many today, truly believed that the end of the Age was close at hand, presumably to occur during their lifetime. God made use of that belief (common among many Jews and others at the time) for a greater purpose. While the inspired authors could, technically, be seen as having been mistaken on this point, it does not affect the truth of the message which they are communicating to us. [Approach #1]
    • In interpreting these passages, our emphasis should not be on individual statements (regarding the end being near, etc), but, rather, upon the overall worldview of which they are a part. This relates, in particular, to the unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological language. Conceivably, early Christians could also speak of the end being “near”, even though they realized it might not become manifest on earth in the way that traditional eschatology imagined. [Approach #2]
    • In speaking of the end as being “near”, this language is really expressing the idea that it could take place at any moment, since no one (not even Jesus [the Son], cf. Mark 13:32 par) knows exactly when the end will occur. [Approach #3]
    • The use of this language of imminence is primary rhetorical, rather than literal. It is meant to exhort believers to live and act a certain way, as well as offering hope in difficult times. This view, in part, draws upon a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. [Approach #4]

Approach #3 is probably the most popular approach to the problem adopted by Christians today. It basically holds that the language of imminence means, not that the end will come soon, but that it may come soon. It is certainly a convenient solution, in that it very handily allows for an intervening 1,900+ years of history. Indeed, some commentators and theologians simply define imminence (in eschatology) this way, thereby effectively circumventing the entire chronological problem. You can read my critique of this approach (along with comments on all four), in Part 2 of the study on Imminent Eschatology.

I am much more inclined toward Approaches #1 and 2 above, and especially toward the first of these (#1). As previously noted, this approach essentially involves the principle of accommodation. In terms of the doctrine of inspiration (of Scripture), accommodation theory posits that the inspired authors/speakers may have accepted or adopted views commonly held by people of the time, but which, technically speaking, from our vantage point today, could be deemed erroneous, inaccurate, or incomplete. Put another way, believers at the time may have been mistaken with regard to how soon the end would come, but that this does not fundamentally affect the inspired message communicated through them. In my view, a correct interpretation of early Christian eschatology virtually requires some measure of accommodation. Even if we accept this, the solution to the problem is by no means as simple as it may seem. It is not merely a question of understanding (and accepting) the imminence of early Christian eschatology, but also of how the matter relates to the specific end-time events that make up the eschatology—how and when they will occur.

Concluding Note

I outlined above the basic eschatological framework of early Christians. According to the imminence of their eschatology (cf. above), it was believed (and expected) that these end-time events would occur soon, within the very lifetime of those believers. Fair enough; but how, indeed, does this relate to the 1900+ years that have passed? and how should we understand them from our vantage point as Christians today? As I have discussed, much of what Jesus predicts in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse was fulfilled, more or less accurately, during the first century A.D.—centered around the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.)—quite within the time-frame indicated in Mk 13:30 par. The glaring exception is, of course, that the event(s) described in vv. 24-27 par did not occur—and, it would seem, have not yet occurred, even after nearly 2000 years. Much the same may be said, for example, of the visions in the book of Revelation. The end-time period of distress, especially for believers, could be understood as having been fulfilled, in varying degrees, during the first and early-second centuries—i.e., the persecutions of believers, the influence of the Roman imperial cult, etc. However, again, the return of Jesus and the great end-time Judgment, depicted so graphically in the vision-cycles, have not yet taken place.

For Christians today, the difficulty involves the best and most correct way to bridge this divide, establishing a way of interpreting the inspired text that both duly recognizes the meaning it had for believers in the first-century, and allows for a true and complete fulfillment, according to God’s purpose. Here are several ways the divide may be bridged—I will discuss each of them briefly before offering my own (tentative) conclusion:

    • The “last days / last hour” as a period of indeterminate length
    • Dispensational “gap” theory—an intervening period of 1900+ years
    • Dual-fulfillment approach—present (first-century) and future (today?)
    • “Realized” eschatology, and a deeper meaning that is centered around the Spirit

1. The first option was expressed at least as early as Augustine, commenting on 1 John 2:18 in his homilies on the letter (Homily 3.3), when he states of the “last hour” that “this same last hour is long, yet it is the last (hour)”. Many commentators have followed this basic approach; it is virtually required, if one is to maintain that Christians in the late-first century A.D. were living in the “last hour”, and that we also are today, some 1900+ years later. A theological basis for this approach may be found in the famous dictum stated in 2 Peter 3:8, clearly indicating that God, in His eternity, measures time quite differently than human beings do, and that a period of long duration could still be referred to as a single “day” or “hour”.

2. The second option is similar to the first, but emphasizes a concentration and punctuation of end-time events—once in the 1st century A.D., and then again at some point in the more distant future (i.e. our time today, or thereafter). The basis for this “gap” lies in the central idea of the mission to the surrounding nations, whereby the Gospel is proclaimed to people around the world prior to the events finally coming to pass (cf. Mark 13:10 par). The extent and duration of this missionary activity depends on one’s understanding of the geographical extent of the inhabited world. For nearly all first-century Christians, their geographical understanding of the known world would have been more or less limited to the extent of the Roman Empire; by contrast, for later generations of believers, the extent of the world is far more vast, including many more peoples and nations. The New Testament clearly envisions at least a brief period of time when this missionary activity would occur; however, occasionally, we find the idea of a more extensive mission, which might take longer to complete. The developed forms of the Eschatological Discourse, for example, in Matthew and Luke seem to allow for a somewhat more extensive mission (cf. Matt 24:14; Luke 21:24-26). Even so, I am quite certain that the idea of a period of hundreds of years—even two thousand or more—would not even have remotely occurred to the New Testament authors. For dispensationalist commentators, this “gap” in time, this period of missionary activity, might be referred to specifically as the “Church Age”.

3. A somewhat different solution reflects a common interpretive approach adopted (or applied) by Christians with regard to Old Testament prophecy. This is based upon a recognition that the common early Christian (and New Testament) understanding of many prophecies, viewing them as relating specifically to the person of Jesus (his birth, life, and death, etc), represents a secondary application of those prophecies (and not their original or primary meaning), it is possible to speak of them as being fulfilled on two different levels:

    • The original historical context, in the history of Israel, and
    • The inspired (but secondary) application to Jesus and his followers (believers)

On this basis, the prophecies can still be fulfilled for later believers (centered around Jesus as the Messiah, etc), without losing their original meaning and significance for people (Israelites/Jews) at the time. The same sort of phenomenon would then occur for the prophecy and eschatology in the New Testament—there is an original fulfillment (with meaning and significance) for first-century Christians, as well as a secondary (future/final) application that would relate to believers today. I discuss this approach a bit further in my conclusion to the notes on the book of Revelation.

4. The final approach outlined above recognizes more clearly the cultural (and scientific, etc) limitations of people in the first-century A.D. Their worldview, along with various inherited religious and cultural traditions—including eschatological and Messianic traditions—greatly shaped the manner in which the New Testament message is expressed. These traditions include the use of apocalyptic symbolism and a related mode of expression, which, if taken in an overly literal or concrete manner, could give a misleading impression of the underlying message. For example, even among early Christians, there was a profound “realized” eschatology—fulfilled in the present, through the Spirit—alongside the more traditional imminent/future eschatology of Jewish apocalyptic. An argument can be made that this “realized” aspect becomes more dominant in the later writings of the New Testament (c. 70-100 A.D.), including those with a more developed theology (and Christology)—the later (and/or deutero-) Pauline writings, the letter to the Hebrews, and, especially, the Gospel and letters of John. This may reflect a measure of “progressive revelation”—a gradual, but deeper understanding of the true nature and character of the inspired message, centered primarily on the presence and work of the Spirit. While this does not eliminate the imminent future eschatology of early Christians—far from it!—it may change how we look at the way it is expressed in many passages, in light of the overall Gospel message. The end-time events—distress for believers, Judgment on the world, the coming of Jesus to us—are realized spiritually, in the present, as much they will be manifest, in more traditional terms, in the future.

There is merit in each of the four approaches discussed above; indeed, I am inclined to adopt and include elements or aspects of each. I would do this here, in closing, by way of a theological summation, making the following points:

    • Ultimately the “end time” is not as much a matter of a specific moment (kairo/$) or durative period (xro/no$) of time, as it is of the character of what we, as believers, experience in time.
    • Primarily, this is to be understood by the character of Jesus as the Messiah—that is to say, his very person, presence, and work is eschatological, and marks the end of the current Age.
    • As believers, united with him through the Spirit, we experience this New Age now, in the present. This extends to all of the traditional end-time and afterlife events—resurrection, passing through the Judgment, eternal life, the vision of God, etc. There is no better guide to this “realized” aspect of eschatology, for believers, than the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
    • A central point of eschatology is the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth—the essential New Testament message in this regard is that God’s Kingdom is realized in a two-fold manner: (1) through the presence of the Spirit (cf. the previous point), and (2) by the proclamation of the Gospel.
    • This centrality of the proclamation of the Gospel means that it may properly be understood as the central end-time event. While early Christians had a much more limited and smaller-scale knowledge of the extent of the inhabited world, the reality of this (known to us today) may rightly require a longer period of time (unknown to believers then).
    • The visible return of Jesus (from heaven) to earth was (and remains) a fundamental tenet of Christian belief. While it is possible to interpret (or re-interpret) this in various ways, it must remain central to any proper eschatological understanding. There is a metaphysical aspect to our union with Christ—hence the importance of resurrection, in addition to our union through the Spirit, in the New Testament. The return of Jesus to us is part of this same idea (see esp. 1 Thess 4:13-18 and Col 3:1-4).
    • The final Judgment, however it may best be understood—and there are many different ways of depicting/describing it—is at the heart of the Gospel message of salvation, and cannot be avoided. Here, it is helpful to consult the “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (and its references to the Judgment), to avoid relying too heavily on traditional (and colorful) apocalyptic depictions of the Judgment.

With regard to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament—while early Christians (and the New Testament authors) may have been mistaken (in some sense) in their expectation of how soon the end would come, the message of imminence was quite correct in at least several respects:

    • Believers were (and are), indeed, living at the moment of the end of the current Age (of sin and wickedness), and in the beginning of the New Age (in Christ)
    • Believers then (and now) do experience many of the events and characteristics of the end-time, as described in the eschatological passages—most notably, the conflict with the surrounding world of darkness and evil, that is characteristic of the period of distress.
    • The sense that the end—certainly of a person’s life, but also in a wider sense—can and will come soon, and suddenly, in a moment, is important to keep in mind. The brevity and transitory nature of human life, while part of more general wisdom tradition, is often expressed in the New Testament in eschatological terms. This transitory mortal existence is in direct contrast to the eternal life we experience—in the New Testament, the very idiom is eschatological: “life of the Age(s), life of the Age (to Come)”.
    • Finally, the language of imminence serves to enhance the promise to us—that Jesus will come to us, that we will be united with him (body and soul), that we will experience a transforming vision of God, that the forces of evil will be defeated and eradicated, etc. This promise is surely more significant that the language (of imminence) used to express it.

 

Supplemental Note 3 on Revelation: Interpretive Approaches

Interpretive Approaches to the Book of Revelation

The difficulties surrounding the symbolism of the book of Revelation (cf. Supplemental Note 2), along with other aspects of its eschatology, have led commentators to adopt very distinctive approaches to interpretation, sometimes to the point of constructing elaborate interpretive (and chronological) schema to explain the visions in the book (and how they might be fulfilled). In my notes, I have held tightly to an objective critical approach—which might be referred to also as the historical-grammatical method—focusing almost entirely on the Greek text of the book, its historical and cultural-religious background, and how the symbolism of the visions would likely have been understood by believers at the time (i.e. author and original audience in the late-first century A.D.).

However, the problem with this—and the reason why many Christians cannot accept a strict historical-grammatical approach, in the case of Revelation—lies in the early Christian eschatology reflected in the book. It is an imminent eschatology—i.e., author and audience in the late-first century expected the events described in the book to occur very soon, presumably within their own lifetime. This applies equally to many of the eschatological passages in the New Testament, and leads to the same interpretive problem for us today. I have discussed the point at length throughout the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” (cf. especially the study on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”), and in the notes on Revelation. I admit to making no attempt to solve this problem in the notes and articles, though I have addressed the matter at several points, and do so again more directly in the conclusion to the series.

Some might characterize my approach to the book of Revelation as preterist, but this is not particularly accurate, and would apply better to a critical study of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (cf. my four-part study), since most of the events and details predicted in the Discourse could be seen as being fulfilled, more or less accurately, during the first century A.D. The situation with the book of Revelation is rather different, but some of the same issues arise, in terms of a critical, historical-grammatical approach to the book; I would make the following points (which are also points of tension for believers today):

    • The historical life-setting of believers (in Asia Minor) in the late-first century A.D. (c. 80-100) informs the symbolism of the book, and the primary meaning of the symbols—and, with it, what the visions are describing and communicating—must be intelligible to those believers (author and original audience).
    • The eschatology of the book is imminent (cf. above)—author and audience expected the prophecies to be fulfilled very soon, within their lifetime.
    • The most immediate portion of the prophecies—depiction/description of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, 7:14 etc)—is an extension (and intensification) of what believers at the time were already experiencing.

Admittedly, all three of the above points are problematic, especially the second. While some of the things described in the visions (i.e. those related to the period of distress and persecution of believers) could be seen as having been fulfilled in the first (or early second) century, many others clearly were not—most notably, the return of Jesus and onset of the great Judgment, has not yet occurred. The various specialized interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation (and other eschatological passages in the New Testament) are essentially attempts to solve this difficult problem and bridge the divide. I would outline four basic approaches which might be, and have been, adopted:

    • Church-historical
    • Present-futurist
    • Dual-fulfillment
    • General-spiritual

I will discuss each of these briefly.

The Church-Historical Approach

This approach interprets the visions in the book of Revelation in terms of a survey of Church history, with the various visions (and vision-cycles) representing different periods and events in history, each of which was fulfilled at the proper time. The basic approach appears to have developed in the Middle Ages, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries among members of the Franciscan order. It developed as part of their conflict with the Papacy, the clear allusions to the Roman Empire in the book finding a natural fulfillment in the Roman Catholic Church. The Franciscans saw themselves as a persecuted remnant of the faithful, with Rome (i.e. the Papacy) as the wicked persecutor. This line of interpretation was continued during the Protestant Reformation, involving a similar polemic against the Roman Catholic Church, to be followed by many Protestants thereafter. There are two main advantages to this approach:

    • It allows for both an immediate fulfillment (and relevance) among early believers, as well as a future fulfillment centuries later, covering as it does the span of Christian history
    • It recognizes and retains the (original) context of Roman imperial rule, transferring it to the Roman Catholic Church, and thus making it applicable for believers in subsequent generations.

The main problem with this approach is that it renders the visions—most of them, at any rate—largely irrelevant to the believers for whom the book was specifically (and originally) written. If the visions refer to things that will only be fulfilled centuries later, what real meaning to they have anymore for Christians in the first-century?

While once quite popular among Protestants, the Church-historical approach has been largely abandoned today; traditional-conservative (or ‘Evangelical’) Protestants tend to follow other interpretative approaches, many now assuming some form of Present-futurist interpretation.

The Present-Futurist Approach

This approach simply assumes that, if the prophecies in Revelation have not yet been clearly fulfilled, then they must (and will) be in the future. And, since most individuals and groups who evince an eschatological interest or orientation tend to believe that they are the generation who will witness the end-time events (period of distress, return of Jesus, etc), this future becomes the present—i.e. the prophecies will be fulfilled, for us today, very soon. There are two principal (and rather obvious) advantages to this approach:

    • It retains the strong sense of imminence expressed in the book, transferring it from the first-century to the present-day.
    • It allows for an accurate fulfillment of all the prophecies in the book—presumably at some time in the (very near) future.

Unfortunately, even more than with the Church-historical approach (cf. above), the main problem (and fatal flaw) of any Present-futurist interpretation is that it effectively negates (or at least minimizes greatly) the significance of the visions for believers in the first-century—that is, those for whom the book was specifically written. If the visions speak of things only to be fulfilled centuries (or thousands) of years later, what relevance do they have for believers at the time? Moreover, this approach seems to ignore passages which clearly place the visions (and their interpretation) in the immediate context of first-century believers—as, for example, the explanation of the Sea-creature’s heads in 17:9-11, or the instruction regarding the number/mark of the Sea-creature (13:18), to say nothing of the many clear declarations, exhortations, and warnings to believers at the time.

Obviously, in any Present-futurist approach, details deriving from a first-century context have to be translated (i.e. transferred) into a modern setting. In the case of the historical/cultural setting of the Roman Empire, this has been understood in terms of a ‘revived’ Roman Empire, sometimes identified with the modern European Union (EU), or something similar. In any case, it would be a real, modern-day kingdom or ’empire’ of some sort, patterned in a sense after the ancient Roman Empire. Similarly, the “Antichrist” will be the ruler of this wicked modern empire.

For those who have long since accepted (and simply take for granted) the fundamental validity of a Present-futurist approach, the debate now revolves around specific chronological and interpretive schema—i.e., how the 7 (and/or 3½) year period of distress (Tribulation) fits in relation to the “rapture” of the Church, the return of Jesus, the Millennial reign (chap. 20), and so forth. Especially popular are forms of this approach which seek to find modern-day fulfillment of specific symbols and details, attempting to establish correlations which often border on the absurd. The diversity of the symbolism, of course, makes possible a very wide range of interpretation, and, for many commentators, no opportunity is lost to make a modern-day connection. In many instances, such interpretation is very far removed from how the symbolism would have been understood by first-century Christians.

Dual-Fulfillment Approach

This approach is basic to all early Christian eschatology, as expressed in the New Testament; it attempts to retain the original imminent eschatology (and its relevance for early Christians) while also maintaining an accurate fulfillment of every prophecy. It perhaps is a better fit for the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, i.e.—(1) partial fulfillment in the first-century A.D. (persecution of the disciple, false Messiahs, Jewish War, Roman siege, destruction of the Temple, etc), and (2) secondary/final fulfillment in the future. The Discourse itself supports the idea of dual-fulfillment, in the case of the prophecy in Dan 9:27, being fulfilled in the actions of Antiochus IV in the 2nd century B.C., and again, by a wicked ruler (Roman emperor?) in the 1st century A.D. In this instance, a modern dual-fulfillment approach would mean a three-fold fufillment—(1) 2nd century B.C. (Antiochus), (2) 1st century A.D. (Roman), and (3) future/end-time (Antichrist?). Of course, certain events, such as the end-time return of Jesus, could really only be fulfilled in the future.

In applying this approach to the book of Revelation, one might deem it a plausible mode of interpretation, at least in terms of the end-time period of distress, as long as individual details were not interpreted in an overly concrete, literalist manner:

    • The forces of evil manifest in the Roman Empire (locally in Asia Minor), with its commercial, military, and political power; the corrupting false religion of the imperial cult would lead to increasing persecution of Christians, even to the point of tests involving the veneration of an image of the emperor (13:14-15, cp. Pliny the Younger Epistles 10.97.2).
    • In the future, the forces of evil will be manifest in another wicked/corrupt world-power, which will behave (and act toward Christians) in a manner similar to the Roman Empire in the 1st/2nd century.

As mentioned above, this approach has the advantage of preserving the imminent eschatology of the New Testament, while allowing for the accurate fulfillment of prophecy in the future. This makes the approach quite attractive, but also, for this very reason, is perhaps a bit too convenient. What basis is there, in the New Testament writings themselves, for such a dual-fulfillment idea, apart from our own desire (and need) to preserve the inspired integrity of Scripture? I can find very little substantive evidence to support this approach, however appealing it may be. It may, however, turn out to be best starting-point in the development of a genuine solution to the problem. Much work remains to be done by commentators and theologians in this regard.

The General-Spiritual Approach

In this approach to New Testament eschatology (and the book of Revelation in particular), the visions and prophecies are interpreted more generally, in a way that would apply them to believers in all times. This can be done a number of ways. With regard to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament, the aspect of imminence is often understood in terms of what may happen, or could happen (at any time), rather than what will happen (very soon). In my view, this misreads and distorts the fundamental emphasis in such passages, but the approach is quite understandable as a way of making the eschatological outlook more applicable to us today.

With regard to the main eschatological events—the period of distress and persecution, the return of Jesus, and the great Judgment—central as they are to the book of Revelation, it is similarly possible to interpret them in a generalized or “spiritual” sense, rather than as events for which there will be a concrete (metaphysical) manifestation in space and time. This might seem difficult to accept in the case of Jesus’ return, but a passage such as Luke 17:20-21 could be seen as pointing in that direction. Much more basic, at least in terms of the period of distress (qli/yi$), is the fact that Christians have faced, and continue to experience today, considerable opposition and persecution by the wicked (and by the forces of evil in the world). It need not be limited to any one moment or period in time, but could be seen as a general condition in the current Age. Similarly, the graphic imagery of Judgment—disruptions of the natural order, catastrophic phenomena, plagues and suffering—could be viewed more generally (even realistically) as things experienced by humankind throughout history. Ultimately, the Judgment—the final realization of it—would take place in the afterlife and the heavenly/eternal realm of God.

This would probably be the preferred approach for many Christians today, avoiding as it does all the thorny critical (and doctrinal) questions involving the compatibility of the imminent eschatology of early Christians with the 1900+ years that have since passed. But it is this very point that represents the fatal weakness of the approach—it ignores the clear force of the New Testament eschatology, with its imminence, urgency, and expectation of a terrible coming Judgment.

Ultimately, there is (as yet) no clear solution to the fundamental problem regarding the imminent eschatology of the New Testament. The most honest and forthright approach I can see, and which I have tried to maintain throughout, is to begin with an objective critical study of the text, looking first (and principally) at its original historical, religious-cultural, and literary context. What would these visions and their symbolism have meant to first-century believers in Asia Minor? How did they understand the visionary narrative and its realization? What does the narrative communicate to Christians at that time? Only then can we properly, and reliably, understand what the book of Revelation means for us today.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letters of John

The Johannine Writings, Part 2:
The Letters of John

The three Johannine Letters (1-3 John), like the Gospel (discussed in Part 1), have been traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle. However, there is no evidence for this whatsoever in the Letters themselves. The author, while probably known to his immediate readers, remains unknown to us, identifying himself (in 2 and 3 John) simply as “the Elder” (o( presbu/tero$). Commentators disagree somewhat on whether the same person also wrote 1 John, but this is probably the best (and simplest) explanation. All three letters certainly stem from the same Community, referred to by the traditional label “Johannine” —a group of regional congregations, sharing a common tradition and heritage, which also produced the Gospel of John. This region has traditionally been identified as Asia Minor, especially the area around Ephesus, which is also the provenance of the book of Revelation—and this may well be correct. The Letters almost certainly were written sometime after the Gospel (or at least a version of it) had been produced, and are typically thought to date from the end of the 1st century (c. 90-100 A.D.).

The Johannine Gospel and Letters share the same basic religious and theological outlook, including a common style, vocabulary, and mode of expression, etc. Indeed, portions of 1 John could have been lifted straight out of the Gospel Discourses (and vice versa), so close are they in terms of their language and style. As a result, we may fairly well assume that the Gospel and Letters also reflect a common eschatology—that of the Johannine Community—and a comparative study of the writings (esp. of the Gospel and 1 John) generally bears this out. Eschatology is not particularly emphasized in 1 John, due primarily to the prominence of the specific conflict within the Community that is being addressed. I have discussed this historical-critical aspect at length in recent Saturday Series studies on 1 John. The situation is somewhat analogous to that of Galatians, in which the theological-religious question of the place of the Torah among believers, and the opposition of those who claim that is still binding for believers, dominates the letter.

There are, however, a number of eschatological references throughout 1 John, which generally reflect the idea that believers are living in the end-time (i.e. the end of the current Age), while the New Age has already been realized for believers, in the present, through the Spirit. For more on this “realized” eschatology, and its relation to Johannine theology, cf. the discussion in Part 1. Several of the passing references and allusions in 1 John illustrate this:

    • 1 John 2:8b:
      “…(in) that [i.e. because] the darkness leads (the way) [i.e. passes] along, and the true light already shines”
      —that is, the New Age (of eternal Light and Life) is already being realized for believers in Christ.
    • 1 John 2:13-14:
      “…you have been victorious over the Evil (One)” (stated twice)
      —the final victory over evil has already been achieved (perfect tense of the vb. nika/w) through the work of Jesus Christ (Jn 16:33) and our trust in him.
    • 1 John 2:17:
      “And the world leads (the way) [i.e. passes] along, and (with it) its impulse for (evil), but the (one) doing the will of God remains [me/nei] into the Age.”
      —this is a general statement of the transitory nature of the world (with its impulse for what is corrupt and evil), but also specifically of the idea that the current Age is coming to an end.
    • 1 John 3:14a:
      “We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across, out of death (and) into Life”
      —i.e., the Judgment has already occurred for believers; cf. the discussion on John 5:24 in Part 1.
    • 1 John 4:17:
      “In this love has been made complete with us, (so) that we might hold outspokenness (before God) in the day of Judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] even as that (one) [i.e. Christ] is, (so) also are we in this world.”
      —our identity as believers in Christ (present aspect) gives us assurance that we (will) pass through the Judgment (future aspect).

Other verses could be cited, to the effect that believers already possess the eternal life which otherwise was thought to be experienced (by the righteous) only after the final Judgment (cf. 2:25; 5:11-13, etc). Even so, when considering the eschatology of the Johannine Letters, two passages especially stand out, which need to be considered in more detail—(1) 2:18-27 (along with 4:1-6), and (2) 2:28-3:10. I have already discussed these at length in earlier studies, but without much attention being paid to the eschatological emphasis; this will be the focus here.

1 John 2:18-27 (with 4:1-6)

The eschatological statement in verse 18 is clear and direct, and informs everything that follows in the passage:

“Little children, it is (the) last hour, and, even as you heard that against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$] comes, even now many (who are) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristoi] have come to be—from which you (can) know that it is (the) last hour.”

The author clearly believes that he and his readers are living in the end time, the “last hour” (e)sxa/th w%ra) of the current Age. While this belief may be problematic for Christians today (living 1900+ years after the fact), there can be no real doubt of the imminent eschatology that characterized early Christian thought, especially in the 1st century A.D. It may be amply demonstrated from nearly every writing of the New Testament, as the articles in this series attest (see esp. the earlier study on the imminent eschatology in the New Testament). The noun w%ra (“hour”) often has eschatological significance—cf. Dan 8:17f; Sirach 18:19; Mark 13:11, 31-32; Matt 24:44; 25:13; John 5:25, 28; Rev 3:3, 10; 14:7, 15; and note also the eschatological dimension of the use of the word in the Passion narrative (Mk 14:35, 41; 15:33 par; Lk 22:53; Jn 13:1). However, the expression “the last hour” is rare, occurring only here in the New Testament, “the last days” or “last day” being more common (Acts 2:17; James 5:3; 2 Tim 3:1; 2 Pet 3:3; Heb 1:2; Jn 6:39-40ff; 11:24; 12:48). It would seem to indicate a specific moment rather than a period of time, perhaps emphasizing here all the more that the end was imminent.

The presence of those who are “against the Anointed” is particularly noted as a clear indicator that it is the “last hour” and that the end is near. The Greek adjective is a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos), usually transliterated in English as “antichrist”, but literally meaning “against the Anointed (One)” —that is, against the Messiah. The prefix a)nti/ fundamentally means “against”, i.e. someone or something that is opposed to the Messiah; however, it could also denote something that stands “in place of” (or in exchange for) the Messiah, i.e. a false Messiah or Messianic imitation. I discuss the term further in the first part of my article on the Antichrist Tradition. It appears to have been coined by Christians, with specific reference to Jesus as the Anointed One (i.e. Jesus the Christ). Thus, it here it means “opposed to Jesus as the Christ”.

The author gives us some indication of what he has in mind when he calls certain people “antichrists” (a)nti/xristoi). A careful study of this section (2:18-27, note the adjective again in v. 22), along with 4:1-6, where the term is also used (v. 3), as well as several other references in the letter (and 2 John, vv. 7-9), allows us to reconstruct the historical situation to some degree. There were certain individuals who, according to the author, had separated from the main Johannine Community (“they went out of [i.e. from] us”, 2:19), and who espoused a view of Jesus (as the Christ) considered to be false or in error. As a result, these persons demonstrated that they were false believers (and false prophets), who effectively denied Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God (vv. 22-23). Thus, from the author’s standpoint, they could rightly be characterized as “against the Anointed”. The specific Christological point at issue is difficult to determine precisely; it appears to have involved an unwillingness to recognize the reality (and saving power) of Jesus’ humanity—especially the reality of his death. I discuss the matter in some detail in the aforementioned Saturday Series studies; here, the main thing to note is that these people, with their false view of Jesus Christ, are identified as an eschatological manifestation of “antichrist”.

From an eschatological standpoint, the main difficulty for interpretation lies in the first part of the statement in verse 18:

“…you (have) heard that ‘against the Anointed’ comes”
h)kou/sate o%ti a)nti/xristo$ e&rxetai

The present form of the verb e&rxetai (“comes”) is perhaps better rendered in English syntax as “is to come” or “is coming”, implying an (eschatological) expectation that something (or someone) referred to as “antichrist” will appear at the end time. The author is clearly referencing an existing tradition of some sort, but the precise nature and significance of this tradition is uncertain, and continues to be debated. I would outline three possibilities:

    • The expectation of a wicked (world) ruler, as in 2 Thess 2:1-12, in which case it could be considered an early form of the later Antichrist Tradition, following especially after the “wicked tyrant” motif from the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic writings.
    • A personal (or personified) manifestation of evil—a Satanic spirit-being (or Satan himself)—in which case, it would resemble the end-time appearance of Belial/Beliar, described in other writings of the period.
    • A more abstract manifestation of the forces of evil, though with the possibility of being further manifested/localized in (personal) spirit-beings. This would be closer to the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea-creature, etc, in the book of Revelation.

Many commentators assume the first view—that it is a reference to an early form of the later Antichrist tradition. If so, it would seem that the author is contradicting this tradition. Essentially he would be saying: “you have heard that this Antichrist figure is coming, but he has already come, and in the form of these false believers (antichrists)”. I do not think that this is correct. It seems more in keeping with the thought of the letter—and of the wider Johannine tradition and theology—that the author is referring to a tradition that he accepts, that of an Antichrist-spirit (or spirit-being) who appears, and is dominant on earth, at the end-time. The false believers who espouse this false view of Jesus are a specific manifestation of this end-time spirit, themselves being inspired (perhaps unwittingly) by evil and deceptive spirits (4:1-3ff). This is fully in accord with the Johannine view of the world in the current Age, dominated by the power of evil (and the Evil One)—cf. Jn 3:19; 7:7; 17:15; 1 Jn 2:13-14; 3:12; 5:18-19; also Jn 1:10, 29; 8:23; 12:31; 14:17, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8ff; 1 Jn 2:15ff; 3:1, 13. The situation in the world only becomes more intense and acute as the moment of the end comes closer, with evil becoming ever more prevalent and pervasive throughout humankind.

For further discussion on the matter, consult Part 3 of my study on the Antichrist Tradition.

1 John 2:28-3:10

In early Christian writings of this period, it was common for authors to couch their ethical and religious instruction in eschatological terms. Indeed, the imminence of their eschatology gave a special sense of urgency to the instruction; to paraphrase—since the end is near, and Jesus will soon appear, how much more ought we to remain faithful and vigilant, etc.

1 John 2:28-3:10 opens with an eschatological statement, similar to that in the previous section (2:18-27, above). Even more to the point, the end-time appearance of “anti-Christ” (v. 18) is parallel to the end-time appearance of Christ himself, and immediately precedes it. That the return of Jesus is in view in vv. 28ff is confirmed by the use of the noun parousi/a (parousia, “[com]ing to be alongside”), a common technical term in early Christianity for the end-time coming of Christ, even though this is the only occurrence of the word in the Johannine Writings. In 2 Thess 2:8-9, Paul uses parousi/a for the appearance of Christ and the anti-Christ (i.e. “the lawless one”) both, heightening the parallel between the two.

“And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain in him, (so) that, when he should be made to shine forth [fanerwqh=|, i.e. appear], we might hold outspokenness, and not feel shame from him, in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us).” (v. 28)

This statement reflects the standard early Christian eschatology, though phrased somewhat in distinctive Johannine terms. In fact, the passage is a good example of the interplay between “realized” (present) eschatology and a traditional future eschatology. The present (“realized”) aspect is dominant in the Johannine Writings (especially the Gospel), and is expressed clearly here in verse 29, using a formulation that defines believers (“the ones doing justice/righteousness”) as having “come to be (born)” out of God. That is to say, true believers are already God’s offspring, in union with him—an eternal identity that normally would be reserved for the righteous in the afterlife, following the Judgment (i.e., eschatological). This is stated even more precisely in 3:1:

“You must see (then) what sort of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called (the) offspring of God—and (so) we are.”

The present tense form of the verb of being (e)sme/n, “we are”) is emphatic, emphasizing both an essential identity and present reality. Even so, our identity as God’s children/offspring will be made complete in the end, at the return of Jesus—i.e. the future eschatological aspect. For early Christians, this was understood primarily in terms of the end-time resurrection, when believers would be transformed into a divine, exalted state of existence. The Johannine writings tend to downplay this metaphysical aspect (but cf. the prior discussion on resurrection in the Gospel), and, indeed, here the transformation is expressed by the Johannine idiom of seeing (= knowing)—by seeing God we come to be like Him; this is the declaration in 3:2:

“Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth [e)fanerw/qh, i.e. appear] what we will be; (but) we have seen [i.e. known] that, when it should be made to shine forth [fanerwqh=|] (for us), we will be like Him, (in) that we will see [o)yo/meqa] Him even as He is.”

Throughout this section there is wordplay involving the verb fanero/w (“shine [forth]”, i.e. appear, be manifest), something that, sadly, is obscured or lost in most translations. In the main line of argument, it refers to the appearance or manifestation of Jesus (the Son of God) on earth—both in his earlier/first (vv. 5, 8) and future/second (2:28) appearances, both being understood by early Christians as eschatological events. Here in 3:2, however, the verb has a slightly different meaning—it refers to the manifestation of believers as the children of God (cf. the earlier article on Romans 8:18-25). And yet, this manifestation is tied to the manifestation of Jesus (i.e. his return). Something similar is expressed (by Paul) in Colossians 3:1-4 (discussed in an earlier article), with a different sense of “realized” eschatology—through our union with Christ (in the Spirit), we are already present with him in heaven, and this reality will be experienced fully at the moment of his appearance (from heaven).

The transformation of the righteous (believers) through a consummate vision of God (i.e. seeing Him) reflects an eschatological expectation that has a long history. For Jewish thought, its roots go back deep into Old Testament tradition, finding later expression, for example, in the writings of Philo (e.g., On Abraham 57-59) and subsequent Rabbinic tradition. An especially memorable declaration is found in Pesiqta Rabbati 11.7 (46b): “In this world, Israelites cleave to the Holy One…but in the time to come they will become like Him.” (cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 [1982], p. 425). In the Matthean Beatitudes, Jesus pairs seeing God with being called sons (or children) of God (Matt 5:8-9), just as here in 1 John; on the eschatological/afterlife context of the Beatitude-form, cf. my earlier study. Both here and in Matt 5:8, the verb o)pt–an—omai is used for the future tense of seeing; literally, it refers to gazing with (wide) open eyes, especially appropriate for the idea of beholding God Himself. Paul describes this eschatological vision (for believers) in somewhat different terms, though just as memorably, in 1 Cor 13:12 and 2 Cor 3:18.

This eschatological (and theological) discussion concludes with the ethical-religious exhortation in verse 3:

“And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself holy [i.e. pure], even as that (one) is pure.”

The lack of explicit subject-references, as well as ambiguous use of pronouns, in these verses creates some difficulty for interpretation (and translation). Does “he/him” in vv. 2-3 refer to God the Father or Jesus? to Christ or to the believer? In verse 2, it would seem that it is the relationship between the believer and God the Father that is primarily in view, and it is possible that this continues into verse 3. In this case, our hope is upon Him (i.e. the Father), and we are to purify ourselves because He Himself is pure—traditional instruction reflecting Lev 19:2, etc (compare Matt 5:45 par).

On the other hand, the hope (e)lpi/$) of the believer is better understood in terms of the hope that we hold in Christ (“upon him”). The noun e)lpi/$ frequently has an eschatological connotation in the New Testament—the future hope, of salvation, resurrection, eternal life, etc. This hope tends to be located in the person of Christ; moreover, the demonstrative pronoun “that (one)” (e)kei=no$) is often used as a distinctive way of referring to the person of Jesus, and so at times here in 1 John (2:6; 3:5, 16; cp. 3:7; 4:17). I take the focus in verse 3 as being on Jesus, parallel to the original exhortation in 2:28 (“remain in him”), after a shift in focus (in 2:29-3:2) on God the Father:

    • Exhortation (2:28): “remain in him” (Christ)
    • Exposition (2:29-3:2): the identity of believers as children of God (God the Father)
      • Main premise (2:29): our life and conduct should reflect our identity as children of God (even as Jesus is the Son of God)
      • Present reality (3:1)—we are God’s children now, resembling Him (“realized” eschatology)
      • Future reality (3:2)—we will be like God Himself, seeing Him clearly (future eschatology)
    • Exhortation (3:3): purify ourselves (in Christ)

The Antichrist Tradition: Part 3

In the first two parts of this study (1 & 2) I examined the Old Testament and Jewish background of the Antichrist tradition—or, stated more precisely, the eschatological themes and motifs which influenced and helped shape that tradition. Now, here in Part 3, it remains to explore the New Testament writings themselves.

The meaning and significance of the adjective a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos, “against the Anointed”) was discussed in Part 1. This adjective occurs five times in the New Testament, and all in the letters of John (1 Jn 2:18 [twice], 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7). Moreover, the author of 1 and 2 John uses it (and inteprets it) in a way that is quite different from the customary usage (based on the developed Antichrist tradition). The irony in the New Testament is that the passages typically thought to refer to the Antichrist do not use the term a)nti/xristo$ at all, while the passages that do use it are not referring to the traditional Antichrist-figure, or at least not primarily so. This will be discussed further below.

There are four sections of the New Testament that may be said to relate in some way to the later Antichrist tradition, and which likely played a role in its development:

    1. The Eschatological Discourse of Jesus in the Synoptics (Mark 13 par)
    2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
    3. Revelation 13, and the chapters following (esp. 17:7-14)
    4. The References in 1 and 2 John
    5. Early Christian References outside the New Testament

I have already discussed these passages in considerable detail in earlier articles in this series (and in the daily notes on the book of Revelation). Thus, I will not present a full exegesis here, but will focus instead on only those details or features which relate to the Antichrist Tradition.

1. The Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13 par)

I have examined the “Eschatological Discourse” at length in an earlier four-part article (Pts 1, 2, 3, 4). It is, of course, unique to the Synoptic Tradition, set during the final period of Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 13, par Matt 24-25, Luke 21:5-36). I will use the Markan version as the primary point of reference.

The heart of the Discourse relates to the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, v. 19; cp. Rev 7:14, etc), presented in three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23. Some might see this as a chronological sequence of events, but I believe it is better to view them as different aspects of the same period of distress, describing:

    • Its affect on humankind as a whole (vv. 5-8)
    • Its affect on Jesus’ disciples (believers), in terms of their witness/mission (vv. 9-13)
    • Its affect on the people of Judea, especially those in and around Jerusalem (vv. 14-23)

Each of these sections contains at least one important theme which relates to the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. In fact, in each case it is the leading theme of the section, stated or expressed in the initial verse.

Section 1: The rise of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets” (Mark 13:5f, also vv. 21-22)

This is the leading theme of the section, framed in a general way in verse 5:

“You must look (to it that) no one should lead you astray [planh/sh|]”

The warning follows in verse 6, though the matter is stated more clearly later in verse 22:

“For there will rise false Anointeds [yeudo/xristoi] and false Foretellers [yeudoprofh=tai]…” —that is, false Messiahs (Christs) and false Prophets.

These persons will deceive and lead humankind astray (thus the emphasis at the start of the first section), and even, if possible, actual disciples of Jesus (believers, vv. 22b-23). The issue of false Christs (Messiahs) is stated two ways, in verses 6 and 21, respectively:

“Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)’….” (v. 6)
“…if anyone should say to you ‘See, here (is) the Anointed…'” (v. 21)

The first statement suggests that people will claim to be Jesus himself. However, the Matthean version reads differently, no doubt intended to clarify the situation:

“For may will come upon my name, saying ‘I am the Anointed‘…” (24:5)

This almost certainly reflects the meaning of Jesus’ statement in its original context—people will claim to be the Messiah (Christ), not Jesus himself. Of course, for early Christians, claiming to be the Christ would essentially be the same thing as taking Jesus’ place, since only he is the true Anointed One (Messiah or Christ). In this regard, the noun yeudo/xristo$ (pseudóchristos, “false Anointed”) is close in meaning to the adjective anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), with the prefix a)nti/ (antí) in the sense of “in place of”, “in exchange for” —i.e., an imitation or false version.

There is also a close connection between the idea of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets“, though this may not be immediately apparent to the average reader today. We are not accustomed to thinking of the Messiah as a prophet; however, there were a number of different Messianic figure-types in Jewish thought during this period, as I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. These figure-types include several kinds of Anointed Prophet, most notably those patterned after the figures of Moses and Elijah (cf. Parts 23 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In Jesus’ own lifetime, and especially during the period of his ministry in Galilee, he tended to be identified as an Anointed Prophet as much (or more so than) as a Messiah of the Davidic-ruler type. In Luke 4:17-21ff, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff; also, in the transfiguration scene (Mark 9:2-8 par), Jesus is associated directly with both Messianic Prophet-figures—Moses and Elijah. More examples could be given (cf. the aforementioned articles).

Josephus notes several instances of would-be Messianic/Prophetic figures, spanning from the time of Jesus (the reign of Pilate, c. 36 A.D.) down to the aftermath of the Jewish War (post 66-70 A.D.)—cf. Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-172; War 7.437ff. In each of these instances it would seem that an end-time “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-18) was primarily in view—that is, a miracle-working Messianic Prophet, patterned after Moses, who would lead his people into the ‘Promised Land’.

It is not only the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse that connected the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple with the coming of the end; the War itself appears to have been fueled, in part at least, by eschatological and Messianic expectations (Josephus War 6.312f; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.13.2, and Seutonius Vespasian 4.5). In such an environment, in the face of rebellion, war, and upheaval, it is hardly surprising that “false prophets” and “false Messiahs” might appear, even as predicted by Jesus in the Discourse. Indeed, false prophets were an element of the end-time period of distress and wickedness, according to the eschatological pattern in the Jewish apocalyptic writings (discussed in Part 2). In a more developed form, this would be understood in terms of the influence of Belial and his “spirits of deceit”, inspiring the false prophets. This is most significant in light of how the term “antichrist” is used in the letters of John (cf. below).

Section 2: An intense persecution of Believers (Mark 13:9ff)

The end-time period of distress would also be a time of suffering and persecution for Jesus’ disciples (believers), as summarized in verses 9-13, and also in other Gospel passages. Beginning with his death, the disciples would enter into an “hour of darkness”, a time of testing (peirasmo/$) that would continue until his future return. What Jesus predicts in this section of the discourse was in fact fulfilled, during the first century, among his disciples (and the first generation[s] of believers), as is well-documented, for example, in the book of Acts, the letters of Paul, and in the book of Revelation. While 1st-century Christians certainly believed they were already living in an end-time period of distress, the persecution was expected to become much more intense, and the suffering more acute, as the end drew nearer.

This expectation of greater persecution and suffering, by the surrounding population as well as the governmental authorities, certainly informs the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. We will see it expressed more precisely in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 13ff (cf. below). It also represents a continuation of the earlier Jewish (and Old Testament) traditions—of the “wicked tyrant” motif, the theme of the hostility shown by the (wicked) nations, and so forth (Parts 1 & 2). In particular, the development of the “wicked-tyrant” type-pattern, shaped by the figure of Antiochus IV in the book of Daniel, included prominently the idea of the wicked ruler’s oppression and persecution of the righteous, even to the point of brutally attacking their religious beliefs.

Section 3: The “stinking thing of Desolation” (Mark 13:14)

The third section of the Discourse, describing the suffering of the people in Judea and Jerusalem (including believers), opens with a somewhat cryptic reference to the tradition in Daniel 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11):

“And when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’ [bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$] having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not (be)…then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Mk 13:14)

Matthew’s version clarifies the situation somewhat, while retaining the aside “the (one) reading must have (it) in mind”, making the reference to Daniel explicit:

“So (then), when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’, the (thing) uttered through Daniel the Foreteller, having stood in the holy place…” (24:15)

Matthew’s description brings the statement in line with the context of the Daniel references, in which the “disgusting thing[s] bringing desolation” clearly involve the Temple sanctuary and its sacrificial offerings. Commentators continue to debate the exact nature and identity of “the disgusting thing bringing desolation” (<m@ovm! JWQV!h^). It is especially problematic in light of the actual wording in Dan 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)”

This does not make particularly good sense in the context of the verse, complicated further by the interpretation/translation in the Greek versions:

“and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”

The Hebrew suggests a person, whereas the Greek, perhaps understanding the “wing” [[nk] to be the side or pinnacle of the Temple (cf. Lk 4:9), seems to indicate something (an idolatrous object?) placed on the Temple structure. 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 light of this, some critical commentators have proposed emending the Hebrew [nk (“wing”) to <nk (“their place”), with the expression then being <nk lu (“upon their place”, cf. Dan 11:38), i.e. the pagan altar with its sacrifices in place of the prescribed sacrificial offerings of the Temple (Collins, Daniel, p. 358). This is very reasonable, but it involves the always questionable step of emending the text; it also depends on the particular interpretation of vv. 26-27 as describing the reign of Antiochus IV.

In the (original) context of the Daniel prophecy, this desecration of the Temple was fulfilled by the actions of Antiochus IV, the very embodiment of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The use of the same prophecy, by Jesus (and early Christians) in the first century A.D., indicates a belief that it would be fulfilled (again), presumably by another wicked (foreign) ruler, following the type-pattern of Antiochus. I have previously mentioned several possibilities for how this might have been understood by early Christians, assuming an expectation of its fulfillment in the general time-frame of the first century:

    • The emperor Gaius’ (Caligula) establishment of the imperial cult, including his statue which was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (c. 40 A.D., Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307).
      In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had similarly set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple.
    • The destruction and despoiling of the Temple by Titus in 70 A.D.
    • The transformation of Jerusalem into a (pagan) Roman city (Aelia Capitolina) in the reign of Hadrian, following the suppression of the Jewish (Bar-Kochba) revolt in 132-135 A.D.

The first two are the most relevant (and plausible). Indeed, in the Lukan version of the Discourse, the Daniel prophecy appears to be interpreted in terms of the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple:

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by swaths of soldiers, then know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near” (Lk 21:20)

This emphasis receives confirmation from the statement by Jesus in 19:41-44, located at the fateful moment of his approach to Jerusalem. If we accept vv. 43-44 as authentic, then Jesus, on at least one occasion, prophesied a horrific military siege of the city. The wording is similar to both the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (21:6 par), as well as that here in v. 20. The destruction of the Temple by pagans (i.e. Romans) would, in and of itself, represent a terrible act of desecration. It would also mean that Jesus’ prediction was accurately fulfilled in the war of 66-70 A.D. For more on this, cf. the earlier article on the Eschatological Discourse, esp. Part 3 on the Lukan version. We may thus isolate three aspects of this prophecy which relate to the Antichrist tradition:

    • According to the Hebrew (MT) of Dan 9:27, it refers to the actions of a person—i.e. the wicked tyrant Antiochus IV and his forces
    • The idea of the desecration of the Temple by including a pagan altar (and/or statue), thereby turning it into a pagan shrine; this certainly could be understood in relation to the establishment of the Roman Imperial Cult (cf. below)
    • The destruction of the Temple by hostile pagan forces, led by a wicked (foreign) ruler

2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

(This section is an abridgment of the earlier article in this series.)

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, the description of the figure called “the man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (verse 3, v.l. “man of sin […th=$ a(marti/a$]”) and “the lawless (one) [o( a&nomo$]” (v. 8) is often assumed to be a reference to ‘the Antichrist’ —that is, to the Antichrist tradition. Much can be said in favor of this, at least in a general sense, since the portrait of this “lawless one” does more or less follow the contours of the later tradition. It also continues the earlier line of tradition (the “wicked tyrant” motif, etc) preserved in Jewish apocalyptic writings of the period (Part 2); cf. especially the use of the same expression (“lawless one”) for the wicked tyrant in Ps Sol 17. The description here begins in verse 3:

“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]…”

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”).

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”). On the original Hebrew term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) and the name Belial, cf. the discussion in Part 2. 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=. As previously discussed, 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. This “man of lawlessness” is further described as:

“…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.” (verse 4)

The wording in v. 4a echoes the language and imagery of the “wicked tyrant” motif, going back to the Old Testament Prophets (cf. Part 1). Only here, this figure takes the divine pretensions a step further, by sitting in the Temple sanctuary (“the shrine of 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. In this regard, the adjective anti/qeo$ (“opposed to God, in place of God”), corollary to anti/xristo$, certainly would apply to him.

“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.” (vv. 5-7)

For a detailed discussion of the difficult syntax in this passage, cf. the earlier article. Here are the most important things to note:

    • 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 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 (cf. below). The author (Paul) may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured the “wicked tyrant” motif. 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.

“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.” (vv. 8-10)

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. This person will thus be a “false Christ” and “false Prophet”, a development of the expectation expressed by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (cf. above).

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 (cf. below). 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).

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul is drawing upon the same tradition from Dan 9:27 that is alluded to in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:14 par, cf. above). If so, he seems to accept a rather different interpretation of this tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person (cf. the actual Hebrew in Dan 9:27 MT, noted above); it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as a 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 (assuming Paul was indeed the author). It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

This portrait of the “lawless one”, while following in the line of Jewish and early Christian tradition, brings out several particular points of emphasis which, when taken together, can be viewed as representing a kernel of the subsequent Antichrist tradition:

    • The divine pretensions of this wicked ruler reach the point where he is in the position (i.e. in the Temple sanctuary) of being worshiped by the people as God.
    • He is a personal embodiment of a wider manifestation of the forces of evil (“the secret of lawlessness”) at work in the end-time, and in the current wicked Age.
    • He will work miracles and wonders that are directly inspired by Satan, by which humankind will be led astray; this is close to the developed Jewish tradition of the personal manifestation of Belial (with his spirits of deceit) at the end-time.
    • His appearance (and activity) directly imitates the coming (parousia) of Jesus (the Christ)—thus, he can rightly be referred to as “antichrist” (against, or in place of, the Anointed).

3. Revelation 13ff (esp. Rev 17:7-14)

The visionary symbolism of the book of Revelation is extremely complex, and I have devoted a lengthy series of detailed notes to its exposition. The portions most relevant to the Antichrist Tradition are the chapters dealing with the ‘beast’ (lit. “wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea. This symbolism is introduced in chapter 13 and continues into the final Judgment visions of chapters 19 and 20. Space here does not permit anything like a thorough study of these references (for this, you must consult the daily notes, beginning with those on chapter 13; cf. also the summary note on the chapter). I will be focusing here specifically on several details in chapter 13, along with the interpretation given in chap. 17 (vv. 7-14) on this ‘beast’ (Sea-creature) and its heads.

To begin with, this symbolism—of the Sea-creature and the corresponding Earth-creature (13:1-4ff, 11-12ff)—stems from two primary lines of Old Testament and Jewish tradition:

    • The vision in Daniel 7, of the four ‘beasts’ that come up out of the Sea (vv. 2-8); in the interpretation that follows (vv. 15ff), these beasts are said to be “kingdoms” which, correspondingly, arise out of the Earth (v. 15). The fourth beast, in particular, resembles the Sea-creature of Revelation.
    • The apocalyptic/eschatological tradition of Leviathan (from the sea) and Behemoth (from the earth), as primeval/mythic creatures who embody the forces of darkness and chaos, wickedness and disorder. See, e.g., the references to this tradition in 1 Enoch 60:7-8, 24-25; 2 Baruch 29:4; and 2/4 Esdras 6:49-52 (in Part 1); the latter two are more or less contemporary with the book of Revelation. On the ancient (and Old Testament) background to this tradition, cf. my earlier supplemental article and the summary note on Rev 13.

The “antichrist” aspect to this symbolism derives largely from the “wicked tyrant” motif in Daniel 7, etc, with the original/historical type-pattern of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (cf. the discussion in Part 1). The Sea-creature, with its horns and heads, acts (and speaks) much like the “little horn” in Daniel 7-8. However, in the vision(s) of Revelation 13, there has been a considerable development of the symbolism, both in terms of its specific (and contextual) detail, and in the way it brings together nearly all of the eschatological themes and motifs expressed (earlier) in the Eschatological Discourse and the description of the “lawless one” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (discussed in Sections 1 and 2 above). Note the following, more or less in order of their occurrence in chapter 13:

    • The Sea-creature resembles the evil Dragon (i.e. the Satan/Devil)—cp. 13:1 with 12:3—thus emphasizing its Satanic/demonic nature and character, being a kind of manifestation of Satan himself (cf. further below).
    • Specifically the Dragon (Satan) gives the creature its authority, i.e. power to act (verse 2, cp. 2 Thess 2:9)
    • The Sea-creature’s diadems, names, and its apparently fatal wound (from which it lives again), all play into the idea that it is a wicked imitation, an evil parody, of the exalted Christ; cf. on 2 Thess 2:3-12 above
    • Humankind is drawn to worship the Sea-creature, i.e. as God (vv. 4ff, cp. 2 Thess 2:4); this is also part of his names, etc, which are an insult to God (vv. 1, 5-6)
    • The Sea-creature “makes war” on the holy ones (vv. 7ff)—i.e., attacking and persecuting believers, even to point of putting them to death

All of these “antichrist” elements are put into effect through the work of the Earth-creature (vv. 11-18), with two aspects being especially emphasized: (a) the worship of the Sea-creature, and (b) the persecution of believers. However, based on the tradition in Daniel 7, it is clear that the Sea-creature is not a person, but a kingdom. Thus, contrary to what is often assumed, chapter 13 does not refer specifically to a wicked ruler (personal Antichrist), but to a wicked kingdom or system of government (which, of course, would be headed by a king, etc). I would interpret the Sea-creature as representing the forces of evil at work on earth—that is, in the kingdoms of the world. The Earth-creature represents the local manifestation of this power, i.e. in particular aspects of society and government, both political and religious. This local government enables the forces of evil to dominate and influence humankind, on a practical level.

Most commentators recognize that the primary point of reference, from the standpoint of the historical background of the book of Revelation, is the Roman Empire—the preeminent world-power of the time. In particular, the work of the Earth-creature is manifest in the Imperial Cult, which had become pervasive and well-established throughout the empire by the end of the 1st century A.D. The refusal of Christians to participate in the various aspects of the Cult—including veneration of the emperor (and his image)—would be a prime reason for their being persecuted and put to death. At the time the book of Revelation was written, such persecution by the authorities was still infrequent and sporadic, but it would become far more widespread and intense in the decades and centuries to come. The Earth-creature is also referred to as a “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20), indicated as well by its miracle-working power (13:13-15; cf. Mk 13:22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-10). In its own way, the Earth-creature is an evil imitation of Christ (“false Christ” = “anti-Christ”), resembling the Lamb (Christ) but speaking and acting like the Dragon (Satan).

It is in the heads (and horns) of the Sea-creature that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif expressed most directly. However, this aspect of the creature is alluded to only briefly in chapter 13—specifically, regarding the head which had, apparently, received a death-blow but was restored to life (v. 3). On the one hand, this detail is part of the evil parody of Jesus—the Lamb who was struck to death and came to life again (v. 8; 5:12, etc). At the same time, many commentators feel that it also reflects the historical circumstances of the “heads” (i.e. kings/emperors) of the Sea-creature (i.e. the Roman empire). This comes more firmly into view in chapter 17, with the interpretation (vv. 7-18) that follows the vision (of the Prostitute seated on the Sea-creature) in vv. 1-6. An interpretation of the heads of the creature occurs in vv. 7-14.

Revelation 17:7-14

I have discussed this passage in some detail in earlier notes. On the basic assumption that the heads (kings) are Roman emperors, various attempts have been made to identify the kings in vv. 10ff with a specific sequence of emperors. The text states clearly that “five have fallen” and “one is” (i.e. is currently living, at the time the book was written); this would imply a sequence of 5 emperors, followed by a sixth (the current emperor). I outline several scholarly theories in the notes; however, in terms of the Antichrist tradition, it is the wording in vv. 10b-11 that is most important. Though it would have been accepted that the author and audience were living the end-time, the book envisions at least a short period of time yet before the end, and it is expected that would yet be two more emperors:

    • a seventh (v. 10b), of which little is said except that he has “not yet come” (ou&pw h@lqen); his reign will be brief— “it is necessary for him to remain (for only) a little (time)”
    • an eighth (v. 11), the final ruler—this is the figure who best fits the ‘Antichrist’ type-pattern, i.e. the wicked world-ruler of the end-time

The language used to describe this eighth emperor is elusive, but significant:

“And the wild animal [i.e. the Sea-creature] that was, and is not, indeed he is the eighth, and is out of the seven, and he goes away into ruin” (v. 11)

I discuss this wording in one of the earlier notes; I take it to mean that this ruler, while appearing like one of the emperors, is actually an embodiment of the Sea-creature itself—in other words, a kind of Satanic or demonic incarnation. The phrasing here, along with idea of the death-blow and restoration of one of the heads (13:3), may also indicate that the book of Revelation is drawing upon the legend of Nero‘s return, as many commentators assume. I discuss this in a supplemental note. This does not mean that the author believes in the legend per se, nor that the visions confirm it as true, but simply that Nero is being used as a type-pattern for the wicked end-time ruler, much as Antiochus IV had been earlier. This concept of a ‘demonic emperor’ seems to correspond generally to the description in 2 Thess 2:3ff, as I understand it (cf. above).

4. The References in 1 and 2 John

As noted above, the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos) occurs only in the letters of John—in 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7. I discuss these passages in the current article in this series on the Letters of John, so I will only touch upon the matter briefly here. The main issue involves the author’s statement in 1 Jn 2:18:

“Little children, it is (the) last hour, and, even as you (have) heard that ‘against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$] comes’, (so) even now many (who are) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristoi] have come to be—from which we know that it is (the) last hour.”

This is the earliest surviving occurrence of the adjective a)nti/xristo$, and yet the author treats it as a term known to his readers, requiring no explanation. Indeed, he seems to be referring to an eschatological tradition that would have been familiar to them. The question is whether this is to an early form of the Antichrist Tradition, as many commentators assume. If it does refer to the tradition of a wicked world-ruler of the end-time, then the author actually contradicts it—or, at least, he re-interprets it rather dramatically. I tend to think that this Johannine tradition of “(the) Antichrist” is itself somewhat different than the later Tradition; I would formulate it according to two possibilities:

    • A personal (or personified) manifestation of evil—a Satanic spirit-being (or Satan himself)—in which case, it would resemble the end-time appearance of Belial/Beliar, described in other writings of the period.
    • A more abstract manifestation of the forces of evil, though with the possibility of being further manifested/localized in (personal) spirit-beings. This would be closer to the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea-creature, etc, in the book of Revelation.

Throughout, the author is clearly talking about a spirit of “Antichrist” (against the Anointed), akin to the idea of Belial/Beliar and his “spirits of deceit”, i.e. evil/deceptive spirits who are the source of false prophecy (= the false teaching about Jesus). The world in the current Age was already under the control of the Evil One (the Satan/Devil/Belial), but this wicked control and influence would become even more pervasive and powerful as the end drew nearer. This was a basic premise of early Christian eschatology, and the wickedness of the end-time certainly included both hostility to believers and false teaching/prophecy about Christ himself. The author is saying that this end-time opposition to Christ (“against Christ, anti-Christ”) is being manifest in persons who claim to be Christian, but who he regards as false believers—and false teachers/prophets who effectively deny the truth about Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God). He thus considers them to be “antichrists”, and a fulfillment of the eschatological expectation.

5. Early Christian References outside the New Testament

When we turn to the extra-canonical writings of early Christians, in the period c. 90-150 A.D., there is little evidence for either the use of the term a)nti/xristo$ or the Antichrist tradition itself. As far as I am aware, a)nti/xristo$ occurs only once in these writings, in the epistle of Polycarp (d. 155 A.D.) to the Philippians (7:1). It is essentially a citation of 1 John 2:22 / 4:3 (cf. above), and clearly follows the Johannine tradition in its use and meaning of the term, and shows no indication of a development of the Antichrist Tradition as such. Noteworthy, perhaps, is his characterization of the person who holds the ‘false’ (antichrist) view of Jesus as “the firstborn of the Satan”. This tends to confirm the basic idea of “antichrist” as a kind of incarnation of Satan.

The “Teaching (of the Twelve Apostles)”, or Didache, offers perhaps the earliest evidence for the Antichrist Tradition in the 2nd century. At the close of this work, in chapter 16, there is an eschatological warning to believers, expressed in traditional early Christian terms (going back to the eschatological sayings of Jesus). It describes the end-time period of wickedness and distress, warning of the coming of false prophets, etc (v. 3-4). At the climax of this period we read:

“…and then shall be made to shine forth [i.e. shall appear] the (One) leading the world astray [kosmoplanh/$, i.e. World-Deceiver], (appearing) as (the) Son of God, and he will do signs and marvels, and the (whole) earth shall be given along into his hands, and he will do (thing)s without (regard for what is) set down (by law), (thing)s which have never come to be out of [i.e. since the beginning of] the Age.”

While generally following the sort of description given by Paul in 2 Thess 2:3ff (of the “lawless one”), clearly there has been a measure of development, and we are approaching here something closer to the later Antichrist Tradition.

Finally, mention should be made of the apocalyptic pseudepigraphon known as the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (discussed in Part 2), and other surviving pseudepigrapha, it represents a Christian re-working of earlier Jewish material. The main eschatological portion is in chapter 4, which includes a detailed description of the end-time coming of Beliar (= Belial). While this follows Jewish eschatological traditions regarding Belial (cf. in Part 2), these traditions have been developed and sharpened significantly, placing the portrait of Beliar in a Christian context that provides perhaps the clearest (and earliest) evidence for the Antichrist Tradition proper. Scholars tend to date the Ascension of Isaiah from the first half of the 2nd century A.D. The details and aspects most worth noting are (cf. Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 199-200):

    • Beliar descends in the form of a lawless king, i.e. incarnate as a wicked human ruler (v. 2)
    • He persecutes the Christians (v. 3)
    • He holds universal power, i.e. he is true world-ruler (vv. 4-5)
    • He pretends to be the Beloved, i.e. Jesus Christ—an imitation of Christ (v. 6)
    • He leads the whole world astray, even causing believers to fall away (vv. 7-9)
    • His statue is erected in all cities, by which he is worshiped (v. 11)
    • The period of his reign is approximately 3 ½ years (v. 12)

This is much closer to the standard idea of “the Antichrist” than anything we find, for example, in the book of Revelation. And, while there is certainly a line of development, from the New Testament to this 2nd century portrait, we must be cautious about reading this (later) portrait back into the New Testament itself.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Gospel of John

The Johannine Writings, Part 1:
The Gospel of John

The final (two-part) article in this series will examine the Johannine Writings—that is, the Gospel and Letters of John. They are called “Johannine” because of their traditional ascription to John the Apostle; technically speaking, however, they are anonymous, and we cannot be entirely certain about their authorship. Scholars today do retain the label “Johannine”, but more properly in reference to the Community (i.e. the regional congregations, etc) within which these writings were produced and first distributed. The Gospel and Letters share a common religious and theological outlook, with many similarities in language, style, mode of expression, points of emphasis, etc. If they were not written by the same person, they almost certainly were the product of the same Community. The Book of Revelation is often considered to be another “Johannine” writing, but whether it stems from the same Community as the Gospel and Letters remains a point of debate among scholars. In any case, I have discussed the Book of Revelation at length in an extensive series of daily notes, and so will not be devoting a separate article to it here. Only the Gospel and Letters of John will be examined.

When considering the Gospel of John, in terms of its eschatology, one notices immediately that there is nothing in it remotely like the great “Eschatological Discourse” in the Synoptics, nor the many eschatological parables and sayings (“Son of Man” sayings, etc) preserved in those Gospels. Indeed, the eschatology in the Gospel of John is somewhat limited, based primarily on two areas:

    1. References to the Resurrection in chapters 5 and 11, and
    2. References to Jesus’ (future) coming/return in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33)

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Johannine eschatology is what is commonly referred to as “realized” eschatology. As this term will be used throughout this article, it may be worth defining and explaining what is meant by it beforehand. I would summarize it as follows:

The idea that things and events thought to occur in the future, at the end (and in the afterlife), are experienced (or “realized”) by believers in Christ now, in the present.

Commentators tend to make too much of the distinction between “realized” and future eschatology in the New Testament. In point of fact, early Christian eschatology was characterized by both aspects throughout. It was a fundamental belief that the person and work of Jesus, as the Messiah, marked the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the new. However, as Jesus did not fulfill this Messianic expectation entirely in his lifetime, nor did he usher in the great end-time Judgment, etc, these final eschatological events would have to wait until his future return—which early Christians believed was imminent, to occur very soon. This dichotomy, together with the experience of the presence and work of the Spirit, created a unique eschatological situation among Christians. The time prior to Jesus’ return—that is, the present period—is understood to be a short interim, during which the realization of the New Age is experienced by believers through the Spirit. And, because the Gospel of John places such emphasis on the role and presence of the Spirit (whether implicitly or directly), it tends to give more emphasis to the present, “realized” aspect of eschatology.

1. The Resurrection

There are two main passages in the Gospel of John dealing with the resurrection—that is, of the resurrection of the dead understood to take place at the end-time. In Jewish eschatology of the period, this resurrection was more or less limited to the righteous; however, by the end of the 1st-century A.D., there is more evidence for belief in a general resurrection—i.e. of all humankind, the righteous and wicked alike. The righteous would pass through the Judgment, into eternal life, while the wicked would face (eternal) punishment. This is the traditional eschatological expectation, and both Gospel passages deal with it, interpreting and applying it in a distinctive way.

John 5:19-29

This section is part of the great Discourse of Jesus in chapter 5, based upon the Gospel tradition (healing miracle & Sabbath controversy episode) narrated in verses 1-9ff. Verses 9b-16 are transitional, introducing and developing the Sabbath theme, and establishing the framework for the Discourse proper, which follows the basic form-pattern of the Johannine Discourses:

    • Statement/saying by Jesus (v. 17)
    • Reaction by his audience, expressing misunderstanding (v. 18)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true meaning of the saying (vv. 19-47)

The lengthy exposition is complex, and may be divided into two parts:

    • The Son performs the work(s) of the Father—vv. 19-30
    • These works are a witness to the Son (and to the Father)—vv. 31-47

The first part (vv. 19-30) is also divided into two sections, like poetic strophes, in which the same theme and motifs are repeated:

    • The Son gives eternal/spiritual life to those who believe—vv. 19-24
    • The Son gives new life (resurrection) at the end time (to those who believe)—vv. 25-30

These two aspects of the resurrection power at work in Jesus very much correspond to the “realized” and future aspects of early Christian eschatology. The “realized” aspect is emphasized in vv. 19-24, in which the traditional understanding of the resurrection (and the Judgment) is given a new interpretation:

“For, just as the Father raises the dead and makes (them) live, so also the Son makes alive th(ose) whom he wishes. For the Father judges no one, but all judgment he has given to the Son, (so) that all should give honor to the Son, even as they give honor to the Father. The (one) not honoring the Son does not honor the Father, the (One hav)ing sent him.” (vv. 21-23)

The power of judgment and resurrection both are concentrated in the person of Jesus, God’s Son; as a result, the entirety of the end-time (eschatological) framework of resurrection and the Judgment is defined in terms of whether one recognizes and acknowledges Jesus as God’s Son. Judgment is moved from the future, into the present, so that it occurs already (i.e. it is “realized”) based on a person’s trust (or lack of belief) in Jesus:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you, that the (one) hearing my word/account and trusting in the (One hav)ing sent me, holds (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life] and does not come into (the) Judgment, but has stepped across, out of death (and) into Life.” (v. 24)

The parallel declaration in verse 25 couples this “realized” eschatology with the more traditional future view:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you, that (the) hour comes—and is now (here)—when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and the (one)s hearing shall live.”

In vv. 19-24, the idea of resurrection was spiritual, understood in terms of the life that comes from trust in Jesus; now, in vv. 25-29, it is a physical resurrection that is in view, such as will take place at the end (together with the Judgment, vv. 28-29). However, there are two main differences here with the traditional understanding of the resurrection: (1) as in vv. 19-24, it is Jesus the Son of God who holds the power of the resurrection (and the Judgment), and (2) people are already experiencing this (physical) resurrection from the dead now. The latter point is, primarily, an allusion to the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11, which we shall now consider.

John 11—The Raising of Lazarus (esp. verses 23-27)

The narrative episode of the raising of Lazarus (chapter 11) illustrates the very teaching in the Discourse, discussed above (on 5:19-29). The Lazarus-narrative itself, while relatively straightforward, contains within it two small sections with Discourse-elements:

    • Verses 7-16—especially the dialogue of vv. 11-16, in which the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ words in verse 11.
    • Verses 17-27—the dialogue between Jesus and Martha

It is in the latter dialogue (which I have discussed in considerable detail in an earlier series of notes), that we find the subject of the end-time resurrection again being addressed; it very much follows the basic Johannine Discourse-pattern:

    • Statement by Jesus (v. 23)
    • Misunderstanding by Martha (v. 24)
    • Exposition by Jesus on the true meaning of his words (vv. 25-27)

Let us briefly consider each of these.

Statement by Jesus (v. 23)

“Yeshua says to her, ‘Your brother will stand up [i.e. out of the dead]'”

This is a declaration that Lazarus will be raised from the dead, using the Greek verb a)ni/sthmi (lit. “stand up”). The verb can be used either in a transitive (“make [someone] stand up”) or intransitive sense. By the time of Jesus, among Greek-speaking Jews, it had come to have a technical meaning in reference to the raising of the dead—with the related noun a)na/stasi$ (“resurrection”). It was used previously (four times), in the Bread of Life discourse of chapter 6, in which Jesus identifies himself as “the Bread from Heaven”, i.e. which has come down out of Heaven. This is followed by a dual (parallel) statement regarding the will of God (the Father):

  • “And this is the will of the (One) having sent me—
    • that every(thing) which he has given to me I shall not lose (anything) out of it
      • but I will make it stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 39)
  • “For this is the will of my Father—
    • that every(one) th(at is) looking (closely) at the Son and trusting in him might hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]
      • and I will make him stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 40)
Misunderstanding by Martha (v. 24)

“Martha says to him, ‘I have seen [i.e. known] that he will stand up [a)nasth/setai] in the standing-up [a)nasta/sei] in the last day’.”

Martha clearly understands Jesus as referring to the traditional idea of the end-time resurrection (“in the last day”). This is entirely reasonable; indeed, in the Bread of Life discourse (cf. above), Jesus uses the verb in precisely the same context— “and I will make him stand up in the last day” (6:39, 40). In 5:19-29, it was declared that Jesus (as God’s Son) holds the power over the end-time resurrection (and the Judgment). However, there was a deeper meaning to his words in that passage (cf. above), which expressed a special kind of “realized” eschatology—and a similar line of exposition follows here in vv. 25ff.

Exposition by Jesus (vv. 25-27)

“Yeshua said to her, ‘I am the standing-up and the life—the (one) trusting in me, even if he should die away, he will live; and every (one) living and trusting in me shall (surely) not die away into the Age.'” (vv. 25-26)

As in 5:19-29, the power of resurrection and life is concentrated in the person of Jesus (the Son); as a result, this pulls the future aspect of the resurrection into the present, where Jesus is among his disciples. Here the exposition has been compressed into a single, almost elliptical declaration. It is not possible here to analyze this remarkable statement in detail (for an extensive exegetical study, cf. the earlier notes on vv. 25-26). What is most important to note, from an eschatological standpoint, is the way that the three different aspects of resurrection—also found in 5:19-29—are combined together:

    • Raised into eternal life at the end-time—Martha’s understanding
    • Raised into new life in the present—the miracle of raising Lazarus
    • Raised into eternal life (now) through trust in Jesus—the reality for believers

The first aspect represents the traditional framework of Jesus’ teaching (and Martha’s misunderstanding); the second is illustrated by the Gospel tradition (the miracle) at the heart of the narrative; and the third reflects the ultimate message of the Gospel, summarized by Martha’s climactic confession:

“Yeshua said to her…’Do you trust this?’ (And) she says to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I have trusted that you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God, the (one) coming into the world‘.” (vv. 26-27)

2. The Return/Coming of Jesus (The Last Discourse)

The great Last Discourse of Jesus (13:31-16:33), set within the narrative during the Last Supper on the eve of his Passion, is perhaps better viewed as a sequence of separate Discourses, encompassing a range of (Johannine) Gospel tradition. Many important themes, from earlier in the Gospel, are brought together and developed/expressed in a new way. Within this matrix, two key themes especially dominate the Discourse:

    • Jesus’ impending departure, back to the Father (i.e. the Son’s return to the Father), and
    • The sending/coming of the Spirit (also called para/klhto$, “one called alongside”)

These are twin themes that go hand-in-hand: Jesus’ departure leads to the coming of the Spirit, and, indeed, is the reason for it. Complicating the situation, within the fabric of the Discourse, are several references to Jesus’ coming back to his disciples. The richness of the Discourse is such that it is possible to understand these references on three different levels:

    • Jesus’ immediate return, following his death and resurrection (cf. 20:17-29)
    • His presence in the Spirit, tied to his departure to the Father, and
    • His future return at the end-time

It is not always easy to know for certain which aspect is primarily in view, especially in light of the emphasis on the Spirit and the “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (cf. above). I offer an overview of the eschatology of the Discourse in a separate note. Here, I wish to focus on two specific passages in the Discourse, which, as it happens, tend to reflect the future and present (“realized”) aspects, respectively.

Future—John 14:1-4

“Your heart must not be disturbed; you trust in God, (now) also trust in me. In the house of my Father (there) are many (place)s to stay [monai/]—and, if not, I (would have) told you, (for it is) that I travel to make ready a place for you. And if I would travel and make ready a place for you, (then know that) I come again and will take you along toward myself, (so) that (at) what(ever) place I am, you also may be (there). And (the) place where I lead myself under [i.e. go away, go back], you have seen the way (there).”

Most commentators are agreed that this statement by Jesus refers to his end-time return (from heaven). At the historical level, this may seem rather out of place. After all, his disciples had difficulty understanding (and accepting) the idea of his death and resurrection, much less that of a future return (which assumes the resurrection and ascension, etc). From a literary standpoint, however, it would have made perfect sense to early Christians and readers of the Gospel. Moreover, it follows the general pattern of the Johannine Discourses, whereby a statement by Jesus is not fully or properly understood by his audience (including his disciples). Accepting the authenticity of the saying, the disciples surely would not have understood its true significance until sometime later (cp. the asides in 2:21-22 and 7:39).

Even if we grant the reference to Jesus’ future return, when he will gather all believers to himself (cf. Mark 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:13-18), this basic tradition takes on new meaning within the Johannine context. This can be illustrated from two important details: (1) the vocabulary of the passage, especially the idea of “remaining” (vb me/nw), and (2) the individual discourse that follows (vv. 5-11ff), based on the specific statement in verse 4 (on knowing/seeing the “way” [o%do$]).

1. The ‘dwellings’ of God’s “house” are referenced with the plural noun monai/, i.e., places to remain or stay; it is related to the verb me/nw (“remain”), which has special theological significance in the Johannine writings. It occurs 40 times in the Gospel (compared with just 12 in the three Synoptics combined), including 14 occurrences in the Last Discourse. Its significance is two-fold: (a) it refers to the believer’s trust (and continued trust) in Jesus, and (b) it denotes the believer’s union with God the Father (and Jesus the Son), through the presence of the Spirit. Thus, believers can be said to have dwelling-places (monai/) with God now, in the Spirit, just as well as when they/we are in heaven, in the future.

2. The exposition on verse 4, about believers seeing the way to God, has a similar Christological emphasis—i.e., the way is seen/known through the person of Jesus (the Son), and our union with him. The latter point is only hinted at (in verse 6 and 12-14), until the theme of the coming/sending of Spirit is introduced in vv. 15-17. These verses are transitional to the focus on the present (“realized”) eschatology that dominates in vv. 18-24ff.

Present (“Realized”)—John 14:18-24

Once again, in verse 18, Jesus announces his departure and return:

“I will not leave you bereaved (of a father)—I come toward you. A little (while) yet, and the world no longer (will) look upon me, but you do look upon me, (in) that I live, (so) you also will live.” (vv. 18-19)

The motifs of Jesus’ own resurrection, and the future resurrection of the righteous (believers), are blended together here in a unique way (cf. above). Because Jesus (the Son) is going away, his disciples will no longer have access to God the Father; so, in a real sense, they would be orphans, bereaved (o)rfano/$) of their father. This could refer to Jesus’ impending death, his ultimate departure to the Father, or both. For more on this dual-aspect, cf. the supplemental article on the thematic structure of the Discourse. However, Jesus promises that he will not leave them without a father (God the Father), and announces again that “I come”. The immediate context (vv. 15-17, 25ff) clearly indicates that, in this instance, his coming refers, not to his traditional end-time return, but to his presence with believers through the Spirit. According to the Gospel narrative (cf. 20:19-23), this coming/sending of the Spirit took place, for Jesus’ immediate disciples, very soon after his resurrection (cp. the comparable, but very different, tradition in Luke-Acts). It will effectively be repeated for every person who comes to trust in Christ through the message of the Gospel (17:20-21ff; 20:29, 31, etc).

Other Eschatological References

There are several other eschatological references that could be cited from the Gospel of John. In closing, I would offer this brief survey of four references (and categories of references), that are worth noting.

1. References to the Judgment

There are a number of passages in the Johannine Discourses where Jesus refers to the Judgment (kri/si$), which is certainly eschatological, whether viewed specifically in an end-time or afterlife setting. As in 5:19-29 (cf. above), two points of emphasis are typically made: (a) the power of Judgment belongs to the Son (Jesus), and (b) the Judgment is defined almost entirely in terms of trust in Jesus. While this does not eliminate the traditional future aspect of the Judgment (cf. 5:29; 12:48), it places the emphasis squarely on the present—i.e., those who refuse to accept Jesus have already been judged (and condemned), while those who trust (believers) have already passed through the Judgment into eternal life. This was stated clearly enough in 5:24, and similarly in 3:19-21: “And this is the Judgment: that the light has come into the world, and the men [i.e. people] loved the darkness more than the light…. But the (one) doing the truth comes toward the light…”.

Similar declarations are found in 9:39 and 12:31:

“Unto Judgment I came into the world, (so) that the (one)s not seeing would see, and the (one)s seeing would come to be blind” (9:39)
Now is (the) Judgment of this world, (and) now the chief of this world shall be thrown out” (12:31)

The Spirit testifies regarding this same Judgment (16:8-11), again defined specifically in terms of trust in Jesus, with the sin of humankind understood as a lack of trust.

2. The Destruction of the Temple

The Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mark 13 par) is built upon a prediction, by Jesus, of the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:2 par). The Temple’s destruction (fulfilled in 70 A.D.) is to be taken as a definite indicator that the end is near (vv. 4, 14, 24, 28-30 par), and with it the return of Jesus and beginning of the great Judgment. However problematic this chronology might be for Christians today, there can be little doubt that the destruction of the Temple was a key eschatological event for believers at the time. I discuss the matter at length in the articles on the Eschatological Discourse, and on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian Eschatology.

The Gospel of John contains nothing like the Eschatological Discourse, nor the prophecy of the Temple’s destruction that features so prominently in it; however, there is a statement regarding the destruction of the Temple (the Temple-saying), in John 2:19, part of the Johannine version of the Temple-action episode (the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple, vv. 13-22):

“Loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (up).”

This is quite similar to the statement reported at the Sanhedrin interrogation (‘trial’) of Jesus in the Synoptics (Mark 14:57-58 / Matt 26:60-61). There the Synoptic tradition indicates that it was reported by false witnesses; yet, if we accept the authenticity of the Johannine saying (in substance), then it would seem that Jesus did, in fact, make a statement of that sort, however it may have been misrepresented by unreliable or hostile witnesses. Jesus himself does not explain the saying—it is the Gospel writer who gives the explanation, as an aside (vv. 21-22). Many critical commentators assume that Jesus’ statement, in its original context, was eschatological, very much along the lines of the prediction in Mark 13:2 par—i.e., the destruction of the Temple marks the end of the current Age, and God, through his Anointed Jesus, would introduce a new Temple in the New Age. To the extent that such a view is correct, the eschatological aspect, in the Johannine version, has been transformed into a Christological statement, the Temple being identified with the person of Jesus. Thus, any eschatological significance for the saying follows the present, “realized” emphasis that dominates throughout the Gospel of John—the death and resurrection of Jesus marks the end of the current Age, and a New Age for believers, realized through the Spirit.

3. The “Son of Man” saying in John 1:51

There are relatively few “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel of John, compared with the Synoptics, and those which do occur, tend to emphasize the death and resurrection of Jesus (cp. Mk 9:12, 31; 10:33 par), rather than his end-time appearance—cf. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31. Only in 5:27 do we find the clear eschatological context of the Son of Man overseeing the end-time Judgment.

The “Son of Man” saying in 1:51 is perhaps the most enigmatic verse in the entire Gospel. It has been interpreted many ways, including as an eschatological reference—that is, to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man (Jesus) in glory. There are certainly elements of this saying that resemble several eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics:

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down [i.e. ascending and descending] upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51)

Matthew’s version (16:27-28) of a core Son of Man saying in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26) begins: “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his Messengers [i.e. Angels]…” and concludes with the specific formulation:

“…there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not taste death (themselves) until they should see [i&dwsin] the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (note the parallel in Lk 9:27: “…until they should see the Kingdom of God”, and also Lk 23:42 v.l.)

Several points should be made about the context and significance of this Synoptic passage:

    • The reference is to the end-time Judgment, and (in the developed Gospel tradition) to the parousia (or second coming) of Jesus.
    • It is positioned directly between Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration (a vision of Jesus in glory witnessed by several of the disciples). Moreover, in both Synoptic tradition and Jn 1:19-51, the Son of Man saying follows soon after Jesus gives Peter his new name (Matt 16:18; Jn 1:42).
    • The Son of Man is associated with Angels in a number of sayings, all eschatological and emphasizing the end-time Judgment—Matt 13:41ff; 16:27 par; 24:30-31 par; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also Matt 4:6 par; 26:53.

I discuss these and other aspects of the saying in Jn 1:51 at length in prior notes and articles.

4. The Tradition in John 21:20-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (chap. 21,the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Embedded in the brief (traditional) narrative, is a saying by Jesus regarding this disciple, which, we can assume, was a relatively well-known part of the Johannine tradition. The context is clearly eschatological, related to the end-time return of Jesus. The very point being addressed in the tradition more or less proves the imminent eschatology—i.e. that Jesus’ return would occur within the lifetime of the apostles (and first generation of believers)—that was widespread in early Christianity during the first-century. I discuss this passage as part of the earlier study on the imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Eschatology and the Structure of the Last Discourse

This note is supplemental to the current article on the Gospel of John. The great Last Discourse (13:31-16:33) of the Gospel is built around a major eschatological theme: the departure and return of Jesus. However, the way this theme is developed within the Discourse-sequence is quite complex, operating at two (or three) levels, in terms of the eschatology of the Gospel. Generally speaking, this two-level exposition corresponds with the two aspects of early Christian eschatology—future and present (“realized”). Moreover, as I noted in the article, Jesus’ departure and return can be understood three different ways:

    • Jesus’ immediate return, following his death and resurrection (cf. 20:17-29)
    • His presence in the Spirit, tied to his departure to the Father, and
    • His future return at the end-time

Several of the key passages are discussed in the main article, but I feel it will be helpful to supplement that discussion with a brief analysis of the structure of the Discourse.

The Structure of the Last Discourse (Jn 13:31-16:33)

In an earlier article, I presented a detailed thematic outline of the Last Discourse, which I would divide into three distinct, interconnected discourses, with an introduction and conclusion that relate more directly to the literary (and historical) setting of the Last Supper scene (chap. 13):

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

In terms of the literary/historical setting of the narrative, the departure of Jesus would refer primarily to his impending death, when he would be separated from his disciples for a short time. To judge by Jesus’ words in 20:17, in context, this departure (in the present) involved a return to the Father (cf. below). The introduction and conclusion to the Discourse seem to refer to the imminent events of his Passion and death:

    • 13:31-38—Announcement of his going away (v. 33), followed by a prediction of Peter’s denial (vv. 36-38, cf. 18:15-18, 25-27 par)
    • 16:29-33—Jesus’ prediction of his disciples being ‘scattered’ (cp. Mark 14:27 par), following the (second) announcement of his going away (vv. 16-17)

Within this framework, Jesus’ departure & return are presented in both future and present (“realized”) aspects. In terms of the handling of the Gospel tradition, this may be outlined as a parallel step-sequence:

PRESENT:

    • Jesus’ departure—his death
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cf. 20:17)
        • His return to the disciples, with the coming/bringing of the Spirit (20:19-23)
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in the Spirit

FUTURE:

    • Jesus’ departure—leaving the world
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cp. Acts 1:9-11 etc)
        • His end-time return to his disciples
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in heaven

How is this expressed within the Last Discourse? I believe it is possible to illustrate this by working from the thematic outline above, isolating a multi-level concentric structure that reflects the eschatological development—from traditional to “realized” (i.e., realized in/through the Spirit):

  • His death and return (13:31-38, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 33)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (14:1-4ff)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (14:15-24ff)
        • His disciples in the world, united with Father and Son in the Spirit (15:1-16:4a)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (16:4b-15)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (16:4bff, 16-24)
  • His death and return (16:16ff, 25-29, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 16)

The first layer represents the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the literary (and historical) setting of the Discourse. The second layer reflects the traditional (future) eschatology—Jesus’ end-time return in glory, parallel with his exaltation to heaven (at God’s right hand). The third, inner layer represents the “realized” eschatology so prominent and important to the theology of the Discourses. And, at the center of the great Discourse, is the central theme of believers living in the world, while not belonging to the world, united with God the Father and Jesus the Son through the presence of the Spirit; this is expressed primarily by way of the Vine/Branches illustration of 15:1-17.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Hebrews

Hebrews

Nearly everything surrounding the so-called Letter to the Hebrews—its authorship, date, audience, provenance, and genre—has been the subject of longstanding debate among New Testament scholars. Dating of the book ranges widely, between 60 and 100 A.D. Some commentators would use the references to the Temple, and lack of any specific allusion to its destruction, as an indication of a pre-70 A.D. date, but this is hardly decisive. The Christology of Hebrews shows a relatively high degree of development—perhaps more than in the Pauline letters, but less than the Johannine writings. I would tend to narrow the time-frame for composition to c. 70-90, probably leaning toward the earlier part of this period (c. 75-80?). This would be consonant with the eschatology of the book, for which two points may be noted: (1) the sense of imminence has faded somewhat, replaced by a more expanded form of traditional exhortation (warning of the Judgment, etc); and (2) a “realized” eschatology goes more firmly in hand with future expectation, though the former aspect is not nearly so prominent as it is in the Johannine Gospel and Letters (to be discussed in the next article).

Christology dominates Hebrews, and, to some extent, the Christological development of Messianic thought means that the early Christian eschatology has undergone development as well; cf. the earlier article dealing with the relationship between eschatology and Messianism. There are few passages in Hebrews which are fundamentally eschatological in emphasis; however, the traditions are present throughout, run through by a new and deeper line of theological exposition. It will perhaps be best to approach the eschatology of Hebrews by adopting a survey format, looking at particular aspects or elements of each passage, rather than attempting a detailed exegesis.

Hebrews 1:1-4

The prologue to Hebrews (1:1-4) offers a good example of the dynamic referenced above. The eschatological aspect of the passage is almost incidental, marked by the phrase e)p’ e)sxa/tou tw=n h(merw=n tou/twn (“upon [i.e. in] the last of these days”), v. 2. On the surface, this detail seems thoroughly eschatological, emphasizing that believers are living in the end-times, looking toward the imminent return of Jesus, etc (cp. Acts 2:17; James 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3; 2 Tim 3:1; cf. also 1 Pet 1:5, 20; Jude 18). However, in the context of Hebrews, the traditional phrasing serves rather a different purpose, establishing a contrast that represents (and foreshadows) the end of the old Covenant and the beginning new—a central theme that is developed throughout the letter:

    • God speaks in the old (pa/lai) times and ways–through the Prophets, but
    • He speaks in new way now in the last days—through his Son Jesus

Also eschatological in significance are the references to inheritance (receiving the lot or portion, klh=ro$) and to the Ages (ai)w/n, pl.) in v. 2, but, here again, the emphasis is Christological—God set Jesus to be the heir of all things (cf. also verse 4), even as He made all of Creation (all the Ages) through him. The earlier concept of Jesus’ divine status and position as the result of his exaltation is here combined with a clear belief in his eternal pre-existence. This developed Christology effects the way that the traditional eschatological motifs are expressed and understood in Hebrews.

Hebrews 1:14

The introductory section that establishes the theme of Jesus’ superiority (vv. 5-14) builds on the prologue, and concludes with a statement of the idea that believers will inherit salvation, even as Jesus inherits all things in glory alongside the father. This is yet another example of the early Christian understanding of salvation as eschatological—to be experienced at the end-time; believers are “…the (one)s being about [me/llonta$] to receive the lot/portion of salvation”.

Hebrews 2:2-3ff

This is the first of several exhortative passages in Hebrews, which draw upon the traditional theme of the coming Judgment, used as part of ethical and religious instruction. In earlier writings, the warnings are very much driven by the sense of urgency that comes from an imminent eschatology. In some measure, this is retained here in Hebrews:

“For, if the account (hav)ing been spoken through Messengers came to be firm, and every stepping alongside [i.e. over the line] and hearing alongside [i.e. being careless/disobedient] received its wage given forth in justice, how will we flee out (of danger) [i.e. escape], being [i.e. if we are] without concern (for) so vast a salvation, which, being received at the beginning, to be spoken through the Lord, it was made firm unto us under [i.e. by] the (one)s (hav)ing [i.e. who] heard (him)…”

In other words, the Judgment is coming, and we will not be able to flee from it, or escape it, if we are careless and do not remain faithful to Christ and the truth of the Gospel. This warning follows the same contrast, between the Messengers (as part of the old Covenant) and Jesus the Son (the new Covenant), that was introduced in chapter 1. Only now the focus is more properly on believers in Christ, rather than Jesus himself. Even so, the identity of believers as the people of God and children (“sons”, ui(oi/) of God, is based on our relationship with Jesus the Son (ui(o/$) of God. This the point made in vv. 10-18:

“For it was proper to him, through whom and through [i.e. for] whose (sake) all (thing)s (were made), leading many sons into honor, to make the chief leader of our salvation complete through sufferings.” (v. 10)

The eschatological dimension of believers as the sons/children of God—i.e., a religious identity that will only be realized fully at the end time—is dealt with most memorably by Paul in Romans 8:18-25ff (cf. the earlier article in this series).

Hebrews 3:1, 12-14ff

“There(fore), holy brothers, (one)s holding (a share) of the heavenly calling…” (v. 1)

This is a good example of how the Christological exposition in Hebrews is set within an exhortational framework, urging believers to live and act in the light of the truth regarding Jesus Christ. The opening phrase of this section establishes the essential identity of believers; this is a rhetorical device—by stating the identity of believers up front, the author puts in place the ideal, or standard, by which Christians should live. The expression that is particularly worth noting here is klh/sew$ e)pourani/ou me/toxoi, which refers to believers as “ones holding (a share) with (others)” (me/toxoi), i.e. with other believers, but also with Jesus himself. The share they hold is “of (the) heavenly calling”; this may be understood three ways:

    • The source and origin of the calling is from above the heavens (e)poura/nio$), i.e. where God Himself dwells; the Gospel revelation, and the manifestation of the Son (Jesus), is from God, as the Prologue (1:1-4) makes clear (cf. above).
    • It refers to what believers experience in the present, through the Spirit, in union with Christ.
    • It speaks of what waits for believers in the future—i.e. we are called to the heavenly abode, where we will dwell together with God the Father and Jesus the Son. This last aspect, of course, is eschatological. Cf. below on 11:10ff; 13:14, etc.

Following the Christological exposition (vv. 2-6), and the Scriptural citation (vv. 7-11 [Psalm 95:7-11]), this message is applied to the context of believers’ identity as stated in v. 1. The emphasis of the exhortation (and warning) is decidedly eschatological:

“You must look (to it), brothers, (so that) there will not ever be, in any of you, an evil heart without trust [a)pisti/a], in the standing away from (the) living God; but (rather), you must call each other alongside, according to each day, until the (time in) which it is (no longer) called ‘today’, (so) that no one of you should be(come) hard in (the) deceit of the sin. For we have come to be (one)s holding (a share) with [me/toxoi] (the) Anointed, if (indeed) we hold down firm(ly) the beginning of (our) standing under (in him), up to (its) completion [te/lo$]” (vv. 12-14)

Again the noun me/toxoi is used of believers, only now it clearly relates to our union with Christ, weaving the Christological message of vv. 2-6 into the earlier statement. Also woven in is the Scriptural example from Psalm 95—using the example of Israel’s disobedience (in the wilderness) as a warning to believers to remain faithful. The references to “the standing away [a)posth=nai] from God” and “(the) deceit of the sin” almost certainly have eschatological significance—i.e. allusions to the increasing wickedness at the end of the Age (the period of distress, etc)—as also does the temporal aspect of the (relatively) short time that remains until the end (i.e., while it is yet called “today”). The term “completion” (te/lo$) clearly has a strong eschatological connotation, as it does in many other passages we have studied.

Hebrews 4:1-13

The Scripture passage cited in chapter 3 (Psalm 95:7-11) is expounded further in chapter 4, developing the important theme of the pleasant rest that awaits the people of God. The Greek word is kata/pausi$, literally meaning something like “settling down”, “easing down”, with the idea of stopping or pausing (i.e. from one’s labor). The historical context of Israel entering the Promised Land is applied to believers; the implication being that “Israel” (the people of the old Covenant) was unable to enter this peaceful “settling down” in the Land, due to their disobedience. Nor was this fulfilled by the children of that wicked generation, who entered the Land under Joshua’s leadership (v. 8); thus, the author states clearly in verse 9:

“S0 then, there is left (behind) from (this) [i.e. there remains] a Shabbat [i.e. Sabbath]-like (settling down) for the people of God.”

The “settling down” for the true people of God (i.e. believers in Christ) has more in common with God’s “easing down” from the work of Creation, as symbolized by the Sabbath regulations in the Torah, etc. It is thus represents something far beyond the historical settlement of Israel in the Promised Land:

“For the (one) coming into His settling-down [kata/pausi$] (has) also settled-down [kate/pausen] from his works, just as God (did) from His own (work)s.” (v. 10)

This “settling down” is something that will only take place in the future, at the end. The promise is thus eschatological, as is indicated by the reference to the final Judgment in verse 13.

Hebrews 6:1-8

Hebrews seems to share much the same worldview as the book of Revelation, and may well have been written at about the same time. In both works there is a strong warning to believers against losing faith and ‘falling away’, all the more during the time of severe testing that precedes the end. Especially in Hebrews one senses the very real possibility that some might be led astray and could actually fall from faith in Christ. The first portion of chapter 6 in Hebrews contains one of the strongest such warnings along this line. The nearness of the end perhaps helps to explain the specific eschatological emphasis in vv. 4-5:

“For it is without power [i.e. impossible] (that) the (one)s (hav)ing once been enlightened, and (hav)ing tasted the heavenly gift, and (hav)ing come to be (one)s holding (a share) of the holy Spirit, and (hav)ing tasted the beautiful utterance of God and (the) powers of the coming Age—and (then hav)ing fallen alongside—(for them) to be made new once again…”

The harvest imagery in vv. 7-8 also seems to allude to the great end-time Judgment, as we have seen in numerous other passages, going back to the early Gospel tradition (Mark 4:29; Matt 3:12 par; 13:30, 40-43, etc).

Hebrews 7 (v. 19)

The “Melchizedek” exposition in chapter 7 is perhaps the most famous example of the kind of Christological (re)interpretation of eschatological and Messianic traditions, etc, that we see throughout Hebrews. The parallels with certain texts from Qumran (e.g. 11QMelchizedek) show that, by the first century A.D., the ancient traditions regarding Melchizedek were being applied to Messianic heavenly-redeemer and Anointed-priest figure-types, and that this explains how the author of Hebrews could similarly identify Jesus the Messiah with Melchizedek. However, the discussion in chapter 7 is fundamentally Christological, not eschatological, Melchizedek being utilized to establish how Jesus Christ (who was not a descendant of Aaron) could function as a High Priest—and with a Priesthood far greater than that of the Aaronid and Levitical priests of the old Covenant. For more on this, cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, together with the supplemental article on Hebrews.

Even so, the eschatological aspect of the new Covenant remains not far below the surface in the discussion, coming through at several points, most notably in verse 19:

“…but (on the other hand), (the) bringing in upon (us) of a stronger hope, through which we come near to God.”

The noun e)lpi/$ (“hope”) in the New Testament frequently has a definite eschatological connotation (i.e. the future hope, of the resurrection, etc), as we saw, for example, in the earlier studies on Romans 8:18-25 and 1 Peter 1:3ff. The idea of “coming near” to God also alludes to our standing before him at the Judgment, and of passing through into eternal life. The specific imagery used to express this, in context, is that of the High Priest entering into God’s presence within the sanctuary of the Tabernacle/Temple.

Hebrews 8:8-13

An often overlooked aspect of the early Christian understanding of the “new Covenant” is that it marks the beginning of a new Age—and is thus eschatological. This interpretation of the Covenant-theme goes beyond the basic idea that believers are living in the “last days” (Acts 2:17); rather, it means that believers are already experiencing the Age-to-come now, in the present, through the manifestation and work of the Spirit. Only believers in Christ have this experience of the New Age, prior to its full realization following the return of Jesus and the great Judgment. Thus, there is a definite eschatological aspect to the various “New Covenant” references in the New Testament, such as here in Heb 8:8-13, drawing upon the famous passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34 [LXX 38:31-34]. The words in v. 31 of the oracle, initially referring to a time in Israel’s (immediate) future, when applied to believers in their time (late 1st century A.D.), has an eschatological—and imminent eschatological—context:

“See, the days come [i.e. are coming], says the Lord, and I will bring together completely [suntele/sw] upon the house of Yisrael and upon the house of Yehudah a new diaqh/kh…” (v. 8)

The word diaqh/kh is typically translated “covenant”, but literally refers to something (an agreement, etc) that is “set through”, or “set in order”, as in English idiom we might speak of “putting (our affairs) in order” with a will or contract. The Greek work is used to render the Hebrew tyr!B=, which properly signifies a binding agreement. The verb suntele/sw (“bring together to completion [or completely]”) is related to the term te/lo$ (“completion, end”) which is often used in an eschatological sense (cf. above). In early Christian thought, the end of the old Covenant (v. 13) corresponds generally with the end of the current Age, a correspondence Paul brings out, for example, in passages such as 2 Cor 3:7-18.

Hebrews 9:23-28

Together with this “new Covenant” theology, and the idea of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, Hebrews utilizes the sacred space of the Tabernacle/Temple—particularly its sanctuary—as an image of the New Age that believers experience in Christ. This eschatological aspect is brought out at the end of the Christological exposition in 9:23-28, with its theme of a heavenly sanctuary—the true and real sanctuary which currently exists in heaven (with God and Christ):

“For the Anointed (One) did not come into holy (place)s (that were) made with hands [xeiropoi/hto$], (thing)s patterned after the true, but (instead he came) into heaven it(self), now to shine forth in the sight God, over us [i.e. on our behalf]…” (v. 24)

This corresponds to the motif of the heavenly city, i.e. a heavenly “Jerusalem”, a motif that is found elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. on 11:10f; 13:14 below). The entirety of Jesus’ work (as Priest)—including his earthly ministry, death and resurrection, and future return—is all understood as being set in the end-time, the “last days”, and is thus eschatological:

“…but now, once, at the completion (all) together [sunte/leia] of the Ages, unto the setting aside of sin through the (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice] of him(self), he has been made to shine forth.” (v. 26b)

This is typical of early Christian thought, and his hardly unique to Hebrews; it is the Christological emphasis, and development of the underlying tradition, that is special to this letter. The eschatological aspect is stated even more clearly in verse 28, in which the future (impending) appearance of Jesus is related to his first coming—both being end-time events, from the standpoint of early Christian eschatology:

“So, also the Anointed (One), (hav)ing once been carried toward (God) [i.e. as an offering], unto the taking up on (himself) the sin(s) of many, will be seen out of a second (shining forth), (quite) apart from sin, to the (one)s looking out to receive (him) from (heaven), unto (their) salvation.”

The early Christian understanding of salvation was primarily eschatological, as I have noted on numerous occasions; in this sense it refers to being saved from the great end-time Judgment, as indicated here in verse 27. Jesus first appearance involved the removal of sin, while his second appearance fully (and finally) brings salvation to those freed from sin (i.e., his second appearance is “apart from [xwri/$] sin”).

Hebrews 10:11-13, 19-25ff

The theme of the Priesthood of Jesus, as part of the “new Covenant”, spans the entirety of 4:14-10:18, being expounded and developed a number of ways. Here in 10:11ff, this exposition comes to a close, re-emphasizing the Christological dimension of the new Covenant. Throughout the letter, various Messianic themes and motifs were introduced and given a deeper Christological interpretation. This is certainly true of traditional Messianic passages such as Psalm 110:1, cited frequently by early Christians (e.g., Mark 12:26 par; Acts 2:34-35), as also by the author of Hebrews (1:13). It was the prime reference for the idea of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven at God’s right hand (cf. the discussion in my earlier article). Psalm 110 was also a key passage for the royal theology that would establish (and support) the priestly prerogative for the Davidic line (including the Davidic Messiah). It is thus altogether fitting that the author of Hebrews would again allude to it here.

The eschatological anticipation is emphasized in verse 13, where it speaks of waiting “until his enemies are set (down as) a foot(stool) under (his) feet”. This same aspect is brought out again in the recapitulation of the “new Covenant” theme (citing Jer 31:33) in verse 16, speaking of the covenant that will be made (i.e. fully realized) “after those days”.

The lengthy exposition of chapters 4-10 is capped by a final exhortation, in the form of an eschatological warning, in vv. 19-25. The various themes of the exposition are brought together concisely, woven through the exhortation, but the basic emphasis is clear enough, with its eschatological implications:

“we should hold down (firmly) the common account of the hope [e)lpi/$] (we share), without bending (from it)—for the (One) giving the message [i.e. promise] about (this is) trust(worthy)—and we should set (this) down in mind (for each) other, unto the sharpening of love and beautiful works…” (vv. 23-24)

The urgency of this exhortation to faithfulness (and action) is made especially clear in the closing words:

“…and (to do this) so much more as you see the day coming near”

This “day” is the “day of the Lord”, the day of Jesus’ return, which will usher in the great day of Judgment.

Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22-23; 13:14

“For he looked out for the city holding the (foundation)s set down, whose producer [i.e. builder] and public-worker [i.e. construction worker] (is) God.” (11:10)

This statement is part of the Abraham section (vv. 8-12) of the famous Faith-chapter (chap. 11). Abraham’s trust (pi/sti$) in God was demonstrated by his willingness to leave his homeland, in expectation of finding a new inheritance from God (cf. Gen 12:1ff). The author’s line of interpretation is very much like that used in 4:1-13 (cf. above), where the “settling down” of God’s people refers, not to the settlement of Israel in the promised Land, but to the eternal rest that awaits for believers in heaven, in the Age to Come. Similarly, Abraham is seen as going in search of an eternal, heavenly city—designed and built by God Himself—and not to any earthly land. The same is stated more clearly in the following section (vv. 15-16):

“And if they were remembering that (place) from which they stepped out, they (certainly) held a moment to turn back [i.e. when they could have turned back], but (instead) now they reach out for a stronger—that (is), a heavenly—city. Therefore God does not feel shame about them, (and is willing) to be called their God, for (so) he (has) made ready for them a city.”

The nature of this heavenly “city” is further described in 12:22-23:

“But you have come toward ‚iyyôn {Zion}, mountain and city of (the) living God, Yerushalaim above the heaven(s) [e)poura/nio$], and (the) multitude of Messengers all (together) in (its) market-square [i.e. a)gora/], and (the) e)kklhsi/a of (the one)s first-produced [i.e. first born] having been written (down) from (the registry) in (the) heavens, and (also) God (the) Judge of all, and the spirits of (the) just having been [i.e. who have been] made complete”

The locale and space of the city, patterned after that of Jerusalem on earth, blends over into those persons (or beings) who dwell in the city. Thus, as in the great vision of the “new Jerusalem” in Rev 21-22, we are dealing not so much with an actual city as we are its people. This is an important point of emphasis. The list of four kinds of dwellers seems a bit confusing at first glace—it is not immediately clear how the “e)kklhsi/a of the firstborn” relates to “the spirits of the just”. Both seem to refer to believers, and perhaps it is best to view the list as a parallelism:

    • “the multitude of Messengers”, i.e. divine beings, the Messengers (Angels) of God
      • “the e)kklhsi/a of the firstborn”, i.e. believers, modified by a perfect passive participle:
        • having been written down in the heavens”, i.e. their names have been written down (from the registry) as citizens belonging to the ‘heavenly city’
    • “God the Judge of all”, God who rules over all the multitudes
      • “the spirits of the just”, i.e. believers, modified by another perfect passive participle:
        • “having been made complete”, i.e. perfected and sanctified by God

The noun e)kklhsi/a, of course, though a bit difficult to render literally in English, refers to a gathering or congregation of believers—lit. those “called out” to gather/assemble together. For more on the significance of ‚iyyôn (/oYx!, Zion, Siw/n), here designated as both mountain and city, cf. the recent note on Revelation 14:1.

The final reference to this heavenly “city” is in 13:14, in the form of an eschatological promise:

“For we do not hold here [i.e. on earth] (any) city remaining (for us), but (instead) we seek for the (one) being about [me/llousan] (to come).”

The eschatological significance of the verb me/llw, indicating that something is about to occur, is discussed in the earlier study on imminent eschatology. As for the idea of a heavenly Jerusalem, in clear contrast to the earthly city, consult the recent notes on the vision in Revelation 21-22, beginning with the note on 21:2-4. Believers follow the example of Abraham, et al, in searching and longing for this “city”; it is, to be sure, not an actual city at all, but a theological symbol for which I would give a three-fold interpretation—as a symbol of: (1) eternal life, (2) our union with God (and Christ) in heaven, and (3) our (collective) identity as the people of God.

Hebrews 12:5-11, 25-29

The final two eschatological passages to consider come from the dual exhortation in chapter 12, which may be divided into two main sections, each with its own primary emphasis:

    1. 12:1-17, with a concluding warning in vv. 14-17
      Theme: The need to endure a short period of suffering and testing
    2. 12:18-29, again with a concluding warning in vv. 25-29
      Theme: The need to remain faithful in light of the great “shaking” (i.e. the Judgment) that is about to come upon the earth

The period of testing, summarized most clearly in vv. 5-11, refers essentially to the end-time period of distress, which, according to the eschatology of early Christians, believers were either: (a) already living in, or (b) were about to enter. This is expressed in terms of the discipline that a parent shows to a child, out of love, in order to perfect their personal character and growth. Such an interpretation helps to explain why believers would have to endure this (end-time) suffering, but also to provide encouragement in the face of it. From an eschatological standpoint, the thrust of the message is two-fold: (i) it is not yet as bad as it could be (and will be), v. 4, and (ii) such suffering is only temporary and will last but a short time (vv. 10-11).

The Judgment-theme of the second section (vv. 18-29) begins with an allusion to the manifestation of God (theophany) on mount Sinai (Exod 19:16; Deut 4:11-12, etc). In a similar way, the end-time Judgment will be a time when God manifests himself to humankind on earth, with an equally awesome and terrifying appearance, accompanied by supernatural phenomena and disturbances in the natural world. This aspect is emphasized in the warning of vv. 25-29, drawing upon past examples when humankind (even God’s own people, Israel) were disobedient and refused to heed the word of God:

“For if they, (being) upon (the) earth, did not [i.e. were not able to] flee out (away from God), (hav)ing asked alongside [i.e. in the sense of refusing] the (One) dealing (with them), how much more (shall it be so for) us, the (one)s turning away [i.e. if we turn away] from the (One who is) from heaven, whose voice shook the earth then, but now has given a message about (it), saying, ‘Yet once (more) shall I shake, not only the earth, but also the heaven(s)’?” (vv. 25-26)

The author’s handling of this traditional motif is complex, and a bit difficult, as is observable from the syntax (which I have attempted to preserve, as far as possible, in the translation above). This difficulty continues in the eschatological exposition, of the word “yet once (more)” (a%pac), in verse 27; the statement effectively combines the promise of eternal life with a most clear sense of the end of the current Age (i.e. the end of the world):

“And th(is) ‘yet once (more)’ makes clear the placing beyond [i.e. removing] of the (thing)s being shaken, (so) that only the (thing)s not being shaken should remain.”

In the New Age, following the end of the current Age, only the eternal—those things of God that are unable to be shaken—will remain. Believers are said to receive this “unshakable kingdom” (v. 28), which expresses precisely the same thing as the heavenly “city” of 11:10, 16, etc (cf. above), using different (but related) imagery. However, believers will only receive this kingdom if they/we remain faithful to the end, an eschatological message that is reinforced by the closing reference in v. 29, which combines the theophany and judgment themes in this section: “…for our God (is) a fire taking away [i.e. burning up] (all things complete)ly!”

The Antichrist Tradition: Part 1

As this series on “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” begins to come to a close, it is necessary to examine one of the most complicated (and controversial) components of early Christian eschatology—the Antichrist Tradition, which may be defined as follows:

The expectation that an evil world ruler would arise at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return, the climax of a period of increasing wickedness and corruption. He will be opposed to God and to Christ, and will openly persecute true believers in Jesus; he will deceive people, leading them astray, through supernatural power and influence that may resemble Jesus’ own, a wicked imitation of Christ himself. He is commonly referred to by the title “Antichrist”.

This tradition was reasonably well-established in Christianity by the end of the 2nd century A.D., and continues, with certain variations, into the present day. Many Christians today simply read this tradition into various eschatological passages in the New Testament; to do so, however, is highly problematic, for it assumes that the tradition outlined above had already taken shape, and was widespread, during the first century. As we shall see, the evidence for this is extremely slight. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the seeds of the later tradition are present in at least several of the New Testament writings. We can go back even further—for the roots of the Antichrist tradition can be found in key passages in the Old Testament Prophets, establishing a number of apocalyptic and eschatological motifs which would be developed in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., contemporary with, and prior to, the New Testament texts.

This study will explore the development of the Antichrist Tradition. There have been a number of fine critical studies along this line, going back to Wilhelm Bousset’s landmark Der Antichrist in der Überlieferung des Judentums, des Neuen Testaments, und der alten Kirche (1895, published in English translation as “The Antichrist Legend: A Chapter in Jewish Folklore”). One I have found especially useful is by L. J. Lietaert Peerbolte, The Antecedents of Antichrist: A Traditio-Historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents, vol. 49 in the “Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism” (Brill: 1996). This work will be cited as “Peerbolte, Antecedents,” followed by page number.

Part 1 of this study will begin with a brief examination of the word a)nti/xristo$—its meaning and significance, etc—followed by a survey of the main Old Testament references and passages that were influential in the formation of the Antichrist Tradition.

anti/xristo$

“Antichrist” in English comes from a transliteration of the Greek word a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos). It is a compound noun which means, literally, “against the anointed (one)”. There is no evidence that the word was ever used, prior to its adoption by Christians in the mid/late-first century A.D., nor is there any known contemporary usage by non-Christians. Since the “Anointed” (xristo/$, christós) essentially refers to the Jewish Messiah (or Messianic figure-type), anti/xristo$ conceivably could have been applicable in a Jewish context, referring to someone or something that was “against the Messiah”, or to a false Messiah. However, there is no real evidence for this, and, in all likelihood, the word was coined by early Christians, with the specific understanding of Jesus as the “Anointed One” (xristo/$)—on this, cf. my series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

As coined by first-century Christians, the word follows the pattern of similar descriptive titles with the prefixed preposition a)nti/ (antí), cf. Moulton-Milligan s.v., p. 49:

    • a)ntistra/thgo$ (antistrát¢gos), i.e. the leader of the opposing army (used by Thucydides, etc)
    • a)ntisu/gklhto$ (antisýngkl¢tos), an opposing assembly (i.e. senate, su/gklhto$, those “called together”)
    • a)ntixo/rhgo$ (antichór¢gos), an opposing ‘chorus’ leader, i.e. of voices

Perhaps closer in formal meaning to the Christian use of a)nti/xristo$ is the word a)nti/qeo$ (antítheos), when used in the (admittedly rare) sense of a rival God (qeo/$) or something imitating the Deity. The fundamental meaning of the preposition a)nti/ is “against”, but it can also mean “in place of”, and both of these aspects apply to the Antichrist Tradition as it was developed.

Old Testament Background

The background of the Antichrist Tradition is located in the Old Testament Prophetic writings—especially within the specific genre of the nation-oracle, i.e. oracles of judgment against specific nations (and their rulers). This genre has a long history, from virtually the earliest writings as they have come down to us (8th century B.C.), through to the exile and post-exilic periods. Indeed, most of the canonical Prophetic Scriptures contain some form of nation-oracle, the most notable being those in Amos, Nahum, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Initially these oracles were not eschatological, but referred to the judgment God would bring on a particular nation in the immediate or near future. The genre did not apply only to the surrounding (pagan, non-Israelite) nations—the Prophets regularly gave specific messages of impending judgment for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah which followed a similar pattern.

From the prophetic standpoint, a nation (and its people) was represented by its king, and, occasionally, a nation-oracle would be directed specifically at its ruler. While this symbolized the wickedness of the people as a whole, it had the practical effect of focusing attention on the king as a wicked/corrupt ruler. And, the larger and more powerful the nation, the more conspicuous the ruler is in his worldly ambition, arrogance, and corrupt/brutal use of power. We may call this motif, such as it is highlighted in several key Prophetic passages, that of the “Wicked Tyrant”.

The “Wicked Tyrant” Motif

This motif goes back to at least the late-8th century and the figure of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.). At the time, Assyria was the pre-eminent national power in the Near East, having expanded, through brutal conquest, to form an extensive regional empire. After the northern Israelite kingdom had fallen to Assyria (722-721), it was Sennacherib who led a successful invasion of Syria-Palestine, including an expedition against the southern kingdom, in 701. Dozens of cities were captured or destroyed, but Jerusalem survived, in spite of the siege laid against it. The relevant Scriptural accounts of these events are found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37; 2 Chron 32:1-23; and Isaiah 36-37. In 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff) there is a prophetic denunciation (and taunt) against Sennacherib, which may be seen as the earliest instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The poetic description emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your messengers you treated the Lord with scorn,
and said: ‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 22-23)

The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28).

There are two especially noteworthy examples of this “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets—(1) the oracle against Babylon in Isaiah 14:3-23, and (2) the oracle against the city-state of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19. Each of these emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the king, who would dare to put himself in the position of God (on earth), essentially appropriating the divine authority for himself. This follows the basic seminal pattern of the oracle against Sennacherib (above); however, the imagery in these (later) oracles is expanded considerably, no doubt reflecting a significant development in the tradition.

Isaiah 14:3-23: The King of Babylon

This two-part oracle is closer in tone and style to the poem against Sennacherib; indeed, as an Isaian oracle, it may have been originally directed against Assyria. The specific king and nation being addressed is not indicated within the oracle itself, and the target of Assyria is much more appropriate to the overall context (and historical setting) of the first half of the book (chaps. 1-39). It is a bit difficult to explain the sudden shift to Babylon in 13:1-14:23 (at 14:24 the focus is back on Assyria) on historical grounds, and many critical commentators believe that an earlier Isaian oracle has been applied to a later Babylonian setting (i.e. the Neo-Babylonian empire). However, the introduction to the oracle (14:3-4) clearly has it being addressed to the king of Babylon; the oracles in chaps. 13-14 presumably refer to the fall of the city (to the Persians) in 539 B.C.

The oracle itself appears to be comprised of two distinct poems—one, a more realistic description of the king (and city)’s fall (vv. 4b-11), and the other, a more figurative version of the same (vv. 12-21), drawing upon mythological traditions. The second poem is more relevant to our study, and, in its opening lines, we can see how some of the same motifs and themes of the oracle against Sennacherib (cf. above) have been developed:

“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my covered seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”
… (vv. 12-15)

As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; cp. 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” (du@om) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (la@, °E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name /opx* (‚¹¸ôn), essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). The cutting down of trees was a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, seen in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb ud^G`) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (loav=)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king, as well as the fall/conquest of his city (and empire); as noted above, Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak).

Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms ll@yh@ (“shining [one]”) and rj^v* (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler. For more on this, cf. below.

Ezekiel 28:1-19

The oracle against Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19 is even more complex, part of a series of oracles spanning chapters 26-28. If the Babylonian empire signified military power, the city-state of Tyre embodied commercial power. The product of centuries of Phoenician colonization and trade, the port-city of Tyre, with its fortified island location, was indeed a commercial power, with ambitions to become the center of world trade. Though threatened by the Babylonians, including a lengthy siege by Nebuchadnezzar (c. 585-572?), the city avoided destruction, presumably by way of a surrender treaty or similar agreement. This contrast with the fate of Jerusalem helps to explain Ezekiel’s emphasis on Tyre, devoting several oracles to the city’s expected and impending destruction. As it was envisioned, it would seem that this destruction never did occur, which may be one of the reasons that the book of Revelation chose to use these prophecies for the fate of the end-time “Babylon” (chaps. 17-18), where they could truly find fulfillment.

In this oracle, also in two parts (vv. 1-10, 11-19), many of the same basic themes are repeated, including the overweening ambition (and divine pretensions) of the king, along with his ultimate fate of being cast down into Sheol (here, tj^v^, the place of decay/destruction, v. 8). The arrogance of the king is stated more bluntly, and blatantly, in verse 2:

“…your heart has raised (itself) high, and you said, ‘I am (a) Mighty (one) [°E~l], (on the) seat of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm] I sit, in the heart of (the) seas!’ And (yet) you (are) a man, and not a Mighty (one) [°E~l], and (yet) you give your heart (to be) like (the) heart of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm]!”

This idea of the wicked ruler daring to sit in the very seat of God would play a significant role in the subsequent Antichrist tradition. On the meaning of the titles El and Elohim, and how I translate them, consult the corresponding articles. Even more significant is how this ruler sets his heart to be like the heart of God—this marks his ambition and desire for power in a deeper and more essential way. The Greek term anti/qeo$ (antítheos) could be applied to this attitude, of wishing to function “in the place of God”, or “in imitation of God”; on the parallel between anti/qeo$ and anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), cf. above.

The poem in verses 11-19, like that of Isa 14:12-21, is more figurative in nature, drawing heavily on mythological tradition. We have again the idea of the Garden of God (v. 13), located at the top of the great Mountain (the Mountain of God, v. 14). This Garden-setting was only alluded to in 2 Kings 19:23 (par Isa 37:24), but it is described here in considerably more detail, referring to ancient traditions regarding the primeval ±E~den (/d#u@), the luxuriant locale mentioned in the Genesis Creation narratives (2:8, 10, 15; 3:23-24), containing a garden (/G~)—here called the “Garden of God” (“garden of the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$-/G~).

The satire, too, is much more expansive, depicting the Tyrian king as a k§rû» (bWrK=), a word of uncertain derivation, but typically referring to a divine or heavenly being, presumably with wings, as in the conventional image of an Angel (cf. Exod 25:20, etc). The richness of the divine Garden, with its jewels (precious stones), reflects the wealth and commercial aspirations of Tyre; moreover, the kerub’s wings provide covering (vb Ek^s*), which may allude to the protected position of the city (as an island-fortress). In spite of Tyre’s privileged position (provided to it by God, “I set you on the holy mountain…”, v. 14), it became arrogant and acted wickedly, corrupting its beauty and desecrating its space. As a result, God declares that it will be cast down and destroyed by fire (v. 18), a suitable image for the destruction of a city by military attack.

Here, more so than in Isa 14:12ff, we are likely dealing with an ancient tradition, regard the sin and punishment of a divine/heavenly being, that is being applied to an earthly king. One can only speculate on the details of such a tradition, as well as its possible relation to the sin and fall of Adam in Genesis 2-3. The idea that these oracles refer to the rebellion of Satan and the fallen Angels surely reads far too much into the text, though many today would accept such an interpretation, albeit rather uncritically. Conflict among deities features in many cosmological and religious myths, including aspects of the fall and punishment of certain divine beings; it is only natural that similar tales and traditions were current in Israel, though only fragments have survived within the Old Testament Scriptures themselves. Ezekiel appears to make rather more use of colorful, extra-Scriptural traditions, than do the other Prophets, but similar instances can be cited in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere. Such use of traditions is no bar whatsoever against the inspiration of these writings.

The Book of Daniel

The book of Daniel had an immense influence on Jewish and early Christian eschatology, a subject which will be dealt with more in Parts 2 and 3 of this study. Here space will only allow for a relatively brief survey of the passages most directly relevant to the development of the Antichrist Tradition. To some extent, the precise nature of the book’s influence depends on how one dates the text as it has come down to us. Most critical scholars would date the book (as certainly chapters 7-12) to the mid-2nd century B.C., placing it fairly close in time with other Apocalyptic writings, and even contemporary with some the earlier Qumran texts and parts of the book of Enoch, etc. This would allow the possibility that the book of Daniel is part of a wider apocalyptic tradition. On the other hand, if one takes the book at face value, as coming ostensibly from Daniel’s own time (in the early-mid 6th century), then it is much more likely that it is the primary source of the later lines of tradition.

The book of Daniel was certainly important to the Community of the Qumran texts, as is indicated by the number of manuscript copies, but also by the various “Pseudo-Daniel” writings that have survived. Among these may be considered the famous Aramaic “Son of God” text (4Q246), on which see my earlier article; I will touch on the Qumran texts in Part 2 of this study. A brief survey of the Pseudo-Daniel writings can be found in the article on “New Testament eschatology and the book of Daniel”.

There can be no doubt that much of early Christian eschatology was inspired by the book of Daniel. Of the many signs of this influence (cf. the aforementioned article), the following may be noted especially:

    • The idea of the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14), best known from Jesus’ statements in Mark 13:26-27 par; 14:62 par, and the other eschatological “Son of Man” sayings.
    • The tradition regarding the “disgusting thing of desolation” (Dan 9:27; cf. also 11:31; 12:11), as interpreted in Mark 13:14 par, and likely alluded to elsewhere; this will be discussed further in Part 3.
    • The early Christian concept of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) appears to have been shaped significantly by Dan 12:1ff [LXX]; cf. Mark 13:19 par; Rev 7:14, etc.

Many of the prophecies in the second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) build upon the same “wicked tyrant” tradition found in other Prophetic nation-oracles (cf. the discussion above). It appears prominently in three main sections (cf. also the survey in Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 226-37):

1. Daniel 7—The Horn of the Fourth “Beast”

Chapter 7 is built around a vision of four “beasts” (lit. “living [creature]s”, Aram. /w`yj@) that come up out of the sea, each with fabulous, hybrid animal attributes (vv. 1-8). The fourth of these was the most deadly and terrifying in appearance (v. 7), with ten horns, among which another smaller horn arose (v. 8). This latter horn is described as having eyes “like the eyes of a man”, and also a mouth, which was speaking “great things”. These specific attributes indicate the shrewdness and bold ambition of this “horn”, whose very rise suggests violence—with three of the previous horns being “pulled (up) by the roots”.

Following a theophanic vision of God (the “Ancient of Days”) and the heavenly “Son of Man” (“[one] like a son of man”) in vv. 9-14, an explanation of the vision of the four creatures is given (vv. 15-27). As in the vision of the statue (chap. 2), these four beasts symbolize a sequence of four great kingdoms, the last of which will be the fiercest and most powerful, a conquering empire that shall “devour all the earth and trample it and crush it (to pieces)” (v. 23). As befitting the motif of the horn (symbol of strength and power), each of the ten horns is a king who will rule over the empire. The horn that comes after them is described more extensively, in verses 24-26, prophesying his character and actions; it is in verse 25 that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif:

“And (thing)s spoken against the High (One) will he speak,
and he will wear out the holy (one)s of the Highest;
and he will think to change (the) appointed (time)s and decrees,
and they will be delivered in(to) his hand
until a (set) time, and times, and a division [i.e. half] of a time.”

Each of these lines reflect a key theme or motif that would help shape the Antichrist tradition:

    • Opposing, attacking, or insulting God, especially by the things he says—i.e. boastful, arrogant, and impious words
    • Persecution of the righteous/believers (“he will wear out the holy ones”, also v. 21 “he made war on the holy ones”)
    • Replacement of true religion with false/wicked practices
    • He will be allowed to attack God’s people and institute false religious practice, i.e. he will have the power to do so, and God will permit it
    • This will last for a relatively brief period of time— “a time, times, and half a time”, usually understood as a symbolic period of 3 ½ years.

The wicked rule of this king will be cut short by God’s Judgment, when both the kingdom (the beast) and its king (the horn) will be destroyed (vv. 11f, 26). In its place there will be an eternal kingdom, that of God himself, a kingdom belonging to the holy ones (i.e., the people of God). The “Son of Man” figure is central to this dominion, and features in the vision as a singular figure that is parallel to the collective people of God (vv. 14, 22, 27).

2. Daniel 8—The Horn of the He-Goat

There is a similar vision in chapter 8, of a horned ram, followed by a male goat (he-goat) with a series of horns (vv. 1-14). A single great horn is broken, replaced by four others (v. 8), among which a smaller horn rises up (v. 9). The horn-symbolism is identical, only here the actions of the “little horn” are narrated in much greater detail (vv. 10-15), reflecting both the historical events associated with this king, and the wickedness and arrogance of his conduct. An interpretation of the vision follows in vv. 15-26. This expanded prophetic description means that the “wicked tyrant” motif is also given a significant development, in verses 10-12:

“And it became great, until (it reached the) army of heaven,
and it made to fall (down) to earth (some) from (the) army,
and from (the) stars, and he tread them (down);
even until (reaching) the prince of the army did he grow great,
and from him the continual (offering) was lifted (away),
and the established place of his holiness was thrown down;
and an army was given against the continual (offering), in rebellion,
and it threw down truth (itself) to the earth—
and it did (this), and pushed ahead (with success).”

The elements of the “wicked tyrant” motif are applied to a specific action—an attack against the Temple and its sacrifice. Additional aspects are brought out in the subsequent interpretation of the vision (vv. 23-25); these may seen by highlighting the particular expressions and phrases:

    • “a king strong of face”, i.e. of a harsh and fierce countenance
    • “understanding (the tying of) knots”, reflecting his shrewdness, skill in political intrigue, etc.
    • “his strength shall be mighty (indeed)”; the MT includes the phrase “but not by his own strength”, i.e. his wicked power is allowed/permitted by God, who represents the true source of strength.
    • “he shall do wondrous things (that) bring ruin” —the phrase is a bit uncertain textually, and in terms of its meaning
    • “he shall bring the mighty ones to ruin”, presumably his military conquests
    • “his cleverness (will be) against the holy ones”, i.e. his plans to attack (“make war” against) the righteous; this translation follows a reconstruction of v. 24-25, based in part on the LXX.
    • “deceit will (be) push(ed) forward in his hand”, i.e. he will act with deceit and will promote the use of deception
    • “he shall become great in his (own) heart”, reflecting his ambition and self-delusion, implying pretensions to deity, etc.
    • “with (a sense of) security he will bring many to ruin”, i.e. he will destroy them when they feel themselves safe and secure
    • “he shall take a stand against the Prince of princes”, that is, against God and his heavenly representative(s), esp. the prince of the heavenly army Michael
    • “by the end of a hand [i.e. without use of a hand] he will be broken (to pieces)”, this difficult idiom indicates Divine Judgment, without use of any human intermediary (“without a [human] hand”)
3. Daniel 11:21-45—The Rise of a Wicked Ruler (Antiochus IV)

Nearly all commentators are agreed that the “horn” of chapters 7-8, the wicked ruler who will appear, refers primarily (if not exclusively) to the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 B.C.). The details and context of the visions of chaps. 7-8 seem to bear this out, but the historical scenario becomes much more precise, and specific, in the great vision of chapter 11. Even traditional-conservative commentators generally recognize that these are prophecies relating to Antiochus IV, while allowing for the possibility of a secondary application to a wicked ruler in the more distant future. The wicked ruler described in verses 21-45 of chapter 11 is unquestionably Antiochus IV—his military exploits, political intrigues, and persecution of the people of God (the faithful ones of Israel/Judah). Special attention is given to his desecration of the Jerusalem Temple—including the elimination of the daily sacrifice, and the setting up of “the disgusting thing [JWQv!] bringing devastation [<m@v)m=]” (v. 31, also 9:27; 12:11) in the sanctuary.

This ruler’s self-exaltation, impiety, and opposition to God is described vividly in verses 36-39, providing the most developed form of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the Old Testament, a portrait that would exert an enormous influence on subsequent eschatological and apocalyptic tradition.

The Judgment of the Nations

A separate line of tradition, within the Prophetic nation-oracles, involves the idea of the Judgment of the Nations, collectively. While the nation-oracles normally focused on one specific nation, and the judgment that was expected to come against it in the near future, these collections of prophecies (against different nations) led to the image of all the nations being judged, together, in a setting that was more properly focused on the end-time—that is to say, eschatological.

The idea of the hostility and opposition of the surrounding nations was a basic component of Old Testament tradition and ancient Israelite theology, deriving fundamentally from the distinction of Israel as God’s chosen people, in contrast to all other peoples. The very nature of God’s Covenant with Israel, and the binding terms of this agreement (the Torah regulations), drew a sharp line demarcating the holy from the profane, pure from impure, true worship of God and false, which corresponded closely to the ethnic distinction (i.e. Israel vs. the Nations). This sense of opposition only sharpened within the contours of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, expressed and preserved primarily in the Scriptural Psalms, with their repeated references to the protagonist being surrounded by enemies; often these enemies are more or less equated with the “wicked” and the “nations”. The royal context of this motif is perhaps clearest in Psalm 2, which depicts the new king as being surrounded by potentially rebellious vassals, as well as rulers from the nearby nations, eager to gain greater power and freedom for themselves. The portrait of these wicked/rebellious rulers in vv. 1-3 is justly famous:

“For what [i.e. why] do the nations throng together,
and for (what) do the peoples mutter empty (threats)?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the honored (one)s are set (firmly),
against YHWH and against his Anointed.
‘We shall pull off their (cord)s binding (us)
and we shall throw away their ropes from (off of) us!'”

For more, cf. my earlier study on Psalm 2.

From the standpoint of the Prophetic nation-oracles, the theme of the collective Judgment of the nations, by God, finds its earliest form in the oracle of Joel 3. While not strictly eschatological, the oracle does envision a future time when Israel (Judah and Jerusalem) has been restored (vv. 1), and this restoration follows the great Judgment of the nations (vv. 17-21). The Judgment is depicted as taking place in a great valley, where all the nations have been gathered together (v. 2)—it is the valley where they will be “judged by YHWH” (fp*v*ohy+, Y®hôš¹¸¹‰).

While there is a definite military aspect to this imagery (vv. 9-11), there is no clear sense that the nations are actually engaged in battle. In light of the traditional motif of the hostility of the nations (to Israel), and their opposition to God, it is no great surprise that this scene of the gathering of the nations for Judgment would eventually develop into a gathering for battle—and that they would seek to make war against the people of God (Israel/Judah, and Jerusalem). This is expressed in two primary visions—the closing vision of Zechariah (chap. 14), and the great vision-set of Ezekiel 38-39. In both visionary scenes, the nations gather to make war against Israel, advancing on the city of Jerusalem, before they are defeated through the power and intervention of YHWH.

These Judgment-visions and oracles are not directly related to the Antichrist tradition, as such; however, they are relevant (and worth noting here) for several reasons:

    • The hostility/opposition of the nations (and their kings) to God and His people is placed within a clear eschatological setting—in the context of the Judgment (but prior to it) and the ultimate restoration of God’s people; indeed, their salvation is expressed in terms of deliverance from the wickedness and violence of the nations.
    • The wickedness of the nations (and their rulers), in this Judgment setting, has been expanded in scope, now depicted on a worldwide and cosmic scale; this has significance for the development of the Antichrist tradition.
    • The Ezekiel vision, in particular, has the coalition of nations being effectively led by a great king named “Gog” (goG), and, while this specific detail is only marginally related to the Antichrist tradition, it does provide an Old Testament parallel for the concept of wicked world-ruler—a menacing figure who exercises rule over all the nations, in opposition to God.

In Part 2, we will focus on the subsequent development of these lines of tradition in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 2 Peter and Jude

Second Peter and Jude

Of all the New Testament writings thought to be pseudonymous by some commentators, the letter of 2 Peter is unique in that it is the only such writing about which doubts were expressed (regarding its stated authorship) in the early centuries. These doubts were based on clear differences in language and style between 1 and 2 Peter, together with the basic assumption that the Petrine authorship of 1 Peter was genuine. The author presents himself as an eye-witness to Jesus’ transfiguration in 1:16-18, but such a specific reference could just as well serve as an intentional pseudonymous detail meant to establish apostolic authorship (cf. also the apparent self-reference to 1 Peter in 3:1). Critical commentators would also point to the author’s mention of an early authoritative collection of Paul’s letters (3:16), and to the passing of the first generation of believers (3:4), as signs of a later date. On purely objective grounds, the arguments cannot be considered decisive, one way or the other.

If the letter is genuinely from Peter, then it must have been composed in the early-60’s A.D., not long after 1 Peter was written. If pseudonymous, then most likely it was composed nearer to the end of the first-century (c. 90 A.D.?). Regarding the eschatology of 2 Peter in particular, certain aspects do seem more consonant with a post-70 A.D. date; this will be discussed with the relevant passages below.

Commentators often treat the letter of Jude in tandem with 2 Peter, since the two letters share many similarities of subject matter, outlook, style, and emphasis (cp. Jude 2, 3, 5a, 5b-19, 24 with 2 Pet 1:2, 5, 12, 2:1-3:3, and 3:14, respectively). In terms of their eschatology, it also makes sense to discuss the letters together. The precise relationship between these two letters remains a matter of considerable debate among New Testament scholars. Perhaps the best explanation is that they stem from a common Tradition, much as we see with the Johannine writings, sharing a basic religious and theological approach, mode of expression, vocabulary, and so forth. Most critical commentators would date the letters to roughly the same period, c. 90 A.D. Some of the obvious parallels between 2 Peter and Jude, noted above, will be mentioned again in the notes below.

Second Peter

Chapter 1

The eschatological emphasis of 2 Peter can be seen already in the introduction (exordium), 1:3-11, if only brought out clearly in the final verses:

“Therefore (all the) more, brothers, you must act with speed to make secure your calling and gathering out [i.e. being chosen] (by God); for (in) making these (thing)s (secure) you shall (certainly) not ever fall. For so it shall be led round upon you, the way into the kingdom of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal kingdom] of our Lord and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed.” (vv. 10-11)

In the following section (verses 12-21), the historical or autobiographical narration (narratio) and main proposition (propositio) of the letter are essentially combined, since they are wrapped up in the apostolic identity and authority of the author. The longstanding questions regarding the authorship of 2 Peter—whether pseudonymous or genuinely by Peter—were mentioned above. However one views the matter, there can be no doubt that in 1:12-21 the author purposely emphasizes the theme of apostolic authority; this is established in three parts:

    • Verses 12-15—The author, who identifies himself as Peter (v. 1), is nearing the end of his life, and feels it necessary to deliver one final message (as an inspired apostle) to believers. With regard to the critical view that the letter is pseudonymous, it may be worth noting that this sort of “last testament” setting is typical of many Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic writings (which tend to be pseudepigraphic).
    • Verses 16-18—Just as the author (as Peter) was eye-witness to Jesus’ manifestation in glory during the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8 par), so he is also a reliable (prophetic) witness to the glorious end-time appearance of Jesus.
    • Verses 19-21—The reliability of inspired prophecy is emphasized, and thus that the author’s own message (in the letter) is similarly inspired. The Prophets of the old Covenant and Apostles (missionaries) of the new Covenant were frequently joined together in early Christian thought—Luke 11:49; Eph 2:20; 3:5; Rev 18:20ff; cf. also Matt 5:12; 11:13; 23:29-37 par; Acts 10:41-43; 13:27, 31; Rom 16:26; 1 Thess 2:15; 1 Pet 1:10-12.

The central proposition is implicit, being alluded to most directly in verse 16, when the author indicates that his apostolic witness is reliable, and that “we made known to you our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed’s power and (his com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a]…”. The noun parousi/a was a well-established technical term in early Christianity for the end-time return of Jesus, as has been noted many times in this series. Thus, the author’s apostolic message (in the letter) is eschatological, referring to the end-time and the impending return of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 2

2 Peter 2:1-3

In chapter 2, the eschatological message takes the form of a warning against the “false teachers” (yeudodida/skaloi) who will appear at the end-time, implying that they are already present, but will become a more dangerous and pervasive force as the end draws nearer. This reflects a development in the eschatological tradition of the “false prophets” (yeudoprofh=tai) who will exert an influence over humankind during the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$), cf. Mark 13:22 par. This time of distress is marked by an increase in wickedness, that will include intense persecution and suffering by believers in Christ (Mark 13:9-13 par, etc); the faith of believers will be tested, with the danger that they might even be led astray by these “false prophets” and false Messiahs.

First Peter assumes this period of increasing wickedness and suffering/persecution among believers (cf. the previous article in this series), by which their faith will be tested, part of a fiery ordeal within the great end-time Judgment. Second Peter draws on the same basic tradition, but with a significant difference: in 1 Peter, the attacks come from the surrounding (pagan) population, while in 2 Peter they are from “false teachers” within the Christian Community itself. This may well reflect a somewhat later situation, corresponding to what we find in the Pauline Pastoral Letters and the Letters of John. Especially in 1 John (often dated c. 90 A.D.), the end-time “false prophets” are would-be fellow believers who hold (and teach) an erroneous view of Christ (2:18-19ff; 4:1-3ff). The idea of false teachers infiltrating the congregations is particularly prominent in the Pastorals (dated variously, 60-100 A.D., according to different views of authorship)—2 Tim 2:17-19; 3:1-9, 13; 4:3-4; 1 Tim 1:3-7; 4:1-5ff; 5:15; 6:3ff, 20-21; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11.

In the case of 2 Peter, it is clear that the author has in mind supposed Christians, since he tells his readers that such “false teachers” are (and will continue to be) “among you” (e)n u(mi=n), and that they have “brought in alongside”, i.e. surreptitiously, ruinous and destructive teachings, etc, by which they would lure others in the congregations to follow after them. This is the significance of the noun ai%resi$, preserved in English as a transliterated loanword (“heresy”). The word fundamentally means “taking hold” of something, figuratively in the sense of choosing to follow or trust in something, often with the partisan connotation of aligning oneself with a particular group or side. This is only such instance in the New Testament of this technical (negative) connotation which would become so prominent in early Christianity (cp. Acts 5:17; 15:5, etc; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20).

It is not clear precisely what these “false teachers” say and do, though at least a partial portrait emerges from the illustrations and expositions in the remainder of the chapter. Here, it is indicated that they are both greedy and deceptive in their speech, by which they would exploit and take advantage of believers (v. 3). Their actions are tantamount to denying the Lord (Jesus) himself, and are such that they would cause the “way of truth” to be defamed and insulted (v. 2). God’s end-time Judgment is very much in view when the author speaks of them “bringing ruin/destruction swiftly upon themselves” (v. 1). Even more explicit is the declaration in verse 3b:

“…these (person)s (for) whom the judgment of old is not idle (in coming), and their (final) ruin/destruction does not nod (off) [i.e. go to sleep].”

2 Peter 2:4-14

The eschatological warning of vv. 1-3 is developed by a pair of Scriptural illustrations (vv. 4-9, 15-17), each of which includes an exposition (vv. 10-14, 18-22) that applies it to the current situation, in the context of the coming Judgment. The first illustration brings together the two most famous episodes from the Old Testament which represent and depict the judgment of God upon the wickedness of humankind—the Great Flood (vv. 4-5) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (vv. 6-7). As it happens, each of these judgment-scenes came to serve as an illustrative type-pattern for the coming end-time Judgment. Jesus makes use of them together in an eschatological context (Luke 17:26-29; par Matt 24:37-38, where only Noah and the Flood is mentioned). Noah’s Flood is used in a similar fashion in 1 Peter (3:20ff, cf. the previous article). Of course, destruction by water and fire are the most common means by which the current Age is expected to come to an end, as seen in many eschatological traditions worldwide; this is a basic point of which the author was well aware (cf. below on 3:5-7).

Especially important are the figures of Noah and Lot, each of whom maintained his upright character in the face of the pervasive wickedness in the surrounding society, and, as a result, they were among the very few who were saved from the Judgment. The eschatological implications, and the application to believers (i.e. the readers of the letter), are obvious; these illustrations serve as an exhortation (and warning), vv. 8-9. Moreover, the wicked in the present day (from the standpoint of the letter) follow the pattern of those human beings (and Angels) who sinned in olden times, and are about to face a similarly destructive Judgment (vv. 10-14). The implication is that the “false teachers” are among this group of corrupt and evil persons, depicted so graphically (with some hyperbole) here; however, in this section, it is primarily the wickedness of society (humankind) as a whole that is in view.

2 Peter 2:15-22

The illustration in verses 15ff more properly relates to the false Christian teachers, utilizing the figure of Balaam from Old Testament and Israelite history (cf. similar references in Revelation 2:14 and Jude 11 [below]). Balaam, in the original matrix of traditions, is a complex character, featuring in chapters 22-24 of the book of Numbers. Ultimately, it was the negative aspect of this tradition—particularly, his apparent association with the incident at Peor (cf. Num 31:8, 16)—that came to dominate in subsequent Jewish tradition. Early Christians simply inherited Balaam as a representative figure for wickedness, idolatry, and false prophecy. Covetousness and greed is implied in this portrait (v. 15b), though it is not entirely clear how this relates specifically to the “false teachers”. The author caricatures them savagely, drawing upon the image of Balaam and his donkey (v. 16), and calling them

“fountains without (any) water, (cloud)s of fog being pushed under a storm-wind, for whom the gloom of darkness has been kept (waiting)” (v. 17)

In verses 18-19 we have the first real indication of what these persons may have taught, but it remains quite obscure (to us, at least). It may be that they were advocating social unrest among believers. If the letter was genuinely written by Peter, and/or written in the same setting and time-frame as 1 Peter, then it may reflect a situation of opposition and persecution by segments of the established (pagan) society in the region. Conceivably, these “false teachers” were giving the opposite advice of 1 Peter—instead of patience and humble, law-abiding behavior, they may have advocated a more aggressive approach, promising “freedom” and security by revolutionary means. On the other hand, this e)leuqeri/a (v. 19) could be understood more properly in moral/ethical terms, indicating a ‘false freedom’ that promoted corrupt and licentious behavior. Was the message political, social-ethical, or some combination of the two? What is certain is that these “false teachers” would consider themselves (and/or pretend to be) genuine Christians, and that they, whether intending to or not, would lead other believers away from the true faith (vv. 20-21). They face the same impending Judgment as do the wicked in the rest of society.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 forms the second part of the eschatological message. Alongside the warning of the “false teachers” of the end-time (chap. 2, cf. above), the author now assures his readers of the promise of Jesus’ return, that it is yet imminent.

2 Peter 3:3-7

After reiterating his main point—the reliability of the inspired apostolic witness (the author identifying himself as the apostle Peter, cf. above)—he proceeds to address the eschatological subject of the exalted Jesus’ return to earth. Verse 3 echoes the theme in chapter 2, of those wicked and deceptive “false teachers” who appear at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return. Now they are turned (rhetorically) into mockers and skeptics who express doubt that Jesus will ever return, that this central Christian belief is itself foolish and misguided. The point as issue is set in their mouths as a question, followed by a taunt:

“Where is the (fulfillment of) the message about his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a]? For, from the (time in) which the fathers laid down (to sleep), all (thing)s remain so throughout, (as they have) from (the) beginning of (the) formation (of the world)!” (v. 4)

The taunt in v. 4b actually serves to frame an apparently quite reasonable observation, and one which would only have had meaning for the early Christian Community. The central issue is the fact that, from the standpoint of the time when the letter was written, the first generation of believers (including the leading figures and apostles, “the fathers”) had passed away (“laid down [to sleep]”), and yet Jesus had still not returned. This reflects a concern over what is referred to by New Testament scholars as “the delay of the parousia” (on the term parousi/a, “[com]ing to be alongside”, cf. above).

As I have discussed throughout this series, virtually all Christians in the earliest period held an imminent eschatology—i.e., that the end, and the return of Jesus, was about to occur soon, generally within the lifetime of most believers. The idea that the first generation of believers would not (or might not) pass away until the end had come is expressed at several points in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, including the famous eschatological saying by Jesus in Mark 13:30 par. Concern over the passing of the generation of the apostles seems to underlie the tradition in John 21:22-23 as well. I discuss these passages in a separate note, as part of the study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

The historical and/or literary setting of 2 Peter is centered around Peter’s (impending) death, much as the death of the ‘Beloved Disciple’ informs the appendix (chap. 21) of the Johannine Gospel. Most critical commentators recognize that the reference to the passing of the first generation (“the fathers”) is the mark a somewhat later date (post-70 A.D.), and thus the letter was likely not written by Peter. Traditional-conservative commentators would not be so quick to disregard the indications of Petrine authorship in chapter 1, and might explain the issue of the ‘delay of the parousia’ rather differently. Be that as it may, this sense of ‘delay’ is at the heart of the message in chapter 3. As a point of religious psychology, nearly all adherents—individuals and groups—with a strong eschatological orientation believe that they are the final generation, and that they will live to see the coming of the end. When that generation passes, when the expected moment comes and goes, it is then necessary to explain the apparent delay. We see this, for example, with the Community of the Qumran texts—cf. especially the commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk (1QpHab 7.6-14, commenting on Hab 2:3).

The explanation offered in 2 Peter to the problem follows in verses 8ff; however, it is preceded by a warning against all such doubts (i.e. that the return of Jesus may never come), aligning such skeptics with both the “false teachers” of chap. 2 and the earlier wicked generation that perished in the great Flood (2:4-5ff, cf. above), the implication being that they, too, will perish in the coming end-time Judgment. The author makes a clear parallel between the ancient destruction by water (the Flood) and the modern destruction by fire. This suggests an adaptation of the traditional cycle of Ages so common to the eschatology of the ancient world. At the very least, there is a sequence of two Ages: (1) the antediluvian world, destroyed by water, and (2) the current Age that followed, and still exists, which will be destroyed by fire. This is expressed quite clearly in verses 6-7. The idea that the current world would be consumed by fire was prominent, for example, in contemporary Stoicism, but it can be attested in many cultures and traditions of the period.

2 Peter 3:8-10

The author’s explanation of the ‘delay’ is rather simple, though many readers today would probably not find it particularly convincing. The first point, made in verse 8, draws upon the statement in Psalm 90:4:

“For a thousand years in your eyes (are) as (the) day before, for it passes over and (is as) a watch in the night.”

“But this one (thing) must not be hidden from you, (be)loved (one)s, that ‘a single day alongside (the) Lord (is) as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a single day’.” (v. 8)

In other words, God’s way of measuring time is very different from that of humans. The correspondence of “day” and “thousand years” was utilized in other apocalyptic/eschatological writings of the period, as a way of describing the time-frame of the current Age (and the Age to Come) according to the pattern of the seven days of Creation (cf. my recent article on the “thousand years” in Revelation 20). However, this does not seem to be in view here; rather, the comparison (day vs. thousand years) merely serves to open the possibility that the apparent delay is part of the wider plan of God, which we are not fully able to comprehend (cp. 1QpHab 7.7-8, 12-14).

The second explanation (v. 9) is more traditional (and ethical), based on the idea that God’s actions are aimed at giving humankind every opportunity to repent:

“For (the) Lord is not slow (regarding) the (fulfillment) of (His) messages about (the end), as some would lead (forth the idea) of slowness, but He is long in (His) impulse unto us, not wishing any(one) to go to ruin, but (rather) for all to make space [i.e. come over] into a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance].”

In spite of this apparent “slowness” (bradu/th$), the author maintains the imminence of Jesus’ return, emphasizing that it could yet occur at any moment:

“But the day of the Lord will arrive as (one) who steals [i.e. a thief], (a day) in which the heavens will go along [i.e. pass away] with a whir, and the (part)s of (its) arranged order will be loosened [i.e. dissolved], burning (with fire), and the earth, and the works in her, will be found (exposed).” (v. 10)

This is a graphic and colorful depiction of the end-time Judgment, though not without certain difficulties of vocabulary and syntax, using the imagery of the dissolution of the universe through fire, at the end of the current Age. The illustration of the day of the Lord coming unexpectedly, as a thief, is traditional, going back to the eschatological sayings of Jesus (Matt 24:43 par; cp. 1 Thess 5:2, 4; Rev 3:3; 16:15).

2 Peter 3:11-18

The message of vv. 1-10 leads into a closing exhortation, emphasizing again the coming Judgment and return of Jesus. The eschatological emphasis features in verses 11-14, transitioning from v. 10 with the opening phrase (v.11) that establishes the context of the exhortation: “All these (thing)s thus being loosened [i.e. dissolved]…”. In other words, with the end of the world still imminent, how are we to live as believers in Christ? In particular, Christians, in their thoughts and actions, should always be “looking toward (receiving)” (prosdokw=nta$) and “speeding oneself (toward)” (speudo/nta$) the return (parousi/a) of Jesus (v. 12). His return corresponds with the great Judgment and the dissolution of the universe, from which believers will be rescued. In turn, there is the promise of “a new heavens and a new earth” in which justice and righteousness dwells (v. 13). This is the coming New Age, described as a “new creation”, with an allusion to Isaiah 65:17; 66:22. What is mentioned briefly here is expounded in more precise visionary and symbolic detail in Revelation 21:1-22:5 (cf. the current notes on Revelation); but the basic eschatological concepts and traditions are the same.

The eschatological exhortation sharpens, reaching its climax in verse 14:

“Therefore, (be)loved (one)s, looking toward (receiving) these (thing)s, you must act with speed to be found without spot and without fault (before) Him, in peace.”

The verb speuda/zw, like the related speu/dw in v. 12, indicates the urgency for believers, in light of the impending return of Jesus (and end of the Age). It means acting with speed, or haste, but often connotes striving to accomplish something or to reach a particular goal; it may also reflect the eagerness with which we await the coming of Jesus.

The Letter of Jude

This short letter is said to have been written by one  )Iou/da$ (Heb. hd`Why+, Yehudah, “Judah, Juda[s]”); the intended person in question should probably be identified as the brother of Jesus (and James) mentioned in Mark 6:3 par, however, scholars debate whether this detail of verse 1 is authentic or a mark of pseudonymity (cf. on 2 Peter, above). The letter is quite similar in style, tone, and emphasis to 2 Peter—in particular, the bulk of Jude (vv. 5b-19) resembles chapter 2 (2:1-3:3) of 2 Peter. As noted above, the relationship between the two letters has been explained various ways; in my view, the best explanation is that they stem from a common line of tradition—here, primarily, an eschatological tradition regarding “false teachers” (= “false prophets”) who are to appear at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return. As in 2 Peter, the implication is that they are already present among believers, having infiltrated the congregations; this, of course, serves as another sign (and reminder) that Jesus’ return and the end-time Judgment are imminent.

The eschatological orientation of the letter is indicated in the opening greeting (v. 1), as well as the closing doxology (vv. 24f). In verse 1, the description of believers as those “…having been kept watch over [i.e. guarded/preserved] in Yeshua (the) Anointed”, i.e. guarded until they are united with Jesus at his return. This is stated more clearly in the conclusion (v. 24):

“And to the (One) being able to guard you and to stand you in the sight of His splendor, without fault, in a leaping (for joy)…”

This is a depiction of believers standing before God at the Judgment, and able to pass through, delivered from the Judgment by our union with Jesus Christ and our participation in his saving work, i.e., “through Yeshua the Anointed our Lord”.

The idea of the “false teachers” is introduced in verse 4, being contrasted with “the trust [i.e. faith] (hav)ing been given along once to the holy (one)s” (v. 3)—that is, being received by the first witnesses, and passed down through a single, authentic and reliable chain of tradition. In 2 Peter, these “false teachers” are similarly contrasted with the inspired witness of Peter (and the other apostles), 1:16-21 (cf. above). The basic setting and premise (propositio) of the two letters is very similar, as is the expository development (probatio) that follows, in 2 Peter 2 and Jude 5ff, respectively. The Old Testament scenes of judgment—Israel in the wilderness, the Angels and the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah—serve as a type-pattern for the coming end-time Judgment (“the Judgment of the great Day”, v. 6); they also serve as a warning to God’s people today, of the need to remain faithful and alert, in the face of the increasing wickedness and deception in the last days.

The ‘false teachers’ are compared with those earlier wicked generations (v. 8). As in 2 Peter, we cannot be certain of exactly what they taught or did; the description is specific, but (to us) no longer clear; they are said to be:

“(one)s being (caught) in dreams—(on the one hand) they pollute the flesh, but (on the other) they set aside (the) honored (one)s and insult (them).”

Their lack of real knowledge, according to Jude, is declared harshly in verse 10. They are compared again with the wicked Angels, as well as key disobedient and rebellious figures from Old Testament and Israelite tradition—Cain, Balaam, Korah and his followers (verse 11, on Balaam, cf. above). They will be struck by the impending Judgment (vv. 12-13, note the similarity in thought and language with 2 Pet 2:17), the coming of which was prophesied already in the most ancient times, by Enoch (citing 1 Enoch 1:9, apparently, as authoritative Scripture). This is a common feature of apocalyptic literature of the period—events of the current time (or which are about to occur) are presented as prophecies made by famous figures of the past, i.e. as things which will take place in the distant future. Jude 14ff illustrates something of how such pseudepigrapha might develop.

The author (Jude) is more direct in his eschatological message, in verses 17-19:

“But you, (be)loved (one)s, you must remember the utterances, the (one)s having been spoken before(hand) under [i.e. by] the (one)s sent forth by [i.e. apostles of] our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, (the way) that they related to you [that] ‘Upon [i.e. in/at] the last time, there will be (the one)s acting as children in (all things), traveling (about) according to their own impulses (focused) upon (thing)s without reverence’. These are the (one)s marking themselves off (completely), (away) from (the truth), (one)s with (only) a soul, (but) not holding the Spirit.”

The sense of these ‘separatist’ Christians as false believers (“not holding the Spirit”) is reminiscent of the famous descriptions in 1 John (2:18-19; 4:1-3, etc). Though the situation in the two letters is no doubt quite different, they seem to share a common way of referring to other Christians whom they regard as having departed from the truth. The emphasis on preserving the common Tradition, and the danger from those who do not adhere to it (for whatever reason) is quite clear in these writings (as also in 2 Peter and the Pauline Pastoral letters). Most critical commentators would hold that Jude and 1 John, though stemming from different lines of tradition, were written at about same time (c. 90 A.D.).

The exhortation in verse 21 well summarizes the eschatological outlook of Jude, with its directive to “keep watch over [thrh/sate] yourselves”, and the emphasis on “looking toward (receiving) the mercy of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto the life of the Age[s]”. This points out once again how, for early Christians, their understanding of salvation (“our common salvation”, v. 3) is primarily (and fundamentally) eschatological. The end-time Judgment is likely in view in verse 23 as well, with the reference to “snatching out of the fire”, and the urgency surrounding the author’s exhortation. On the eschatological aspect of the closing doxology (vv. 24-25), cf. above; we should note, in particular, the important distinction made between “all the Age, even now” (i.e. the current Age), and the Age(s) to come (“into all the Ages”). Early Christians were quite cognizant of living on this threshold (“the last days/time/hour”) between the current Age and the Age to come—the coming Age being a “New Age” that opens into the fullness of eternal life.