October 21: Revelation 13:16-18

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

In verses 13-15 (discussed in the previous note), the creature from the Earth establishes control over the people on earth, on behalf of the creature from the Sea, by effectively forcing them to worship an image (ei)kw/n) of the Sea-creature. This living image, animating by the magical-prophetic power of the Earth-creature, functions as the Sea-creature’s living and ruling representative on the earth. This refers to the civic/political realm of government. Now, in verses 16-18, the Sea-creature’s control is established in the commercial/economic sphere as well. The economic control comes by way of a “mark” (xa/ragma), the so-called “mark of the Beast”. Perhaps no detail in the entire book has been subject to so much unbridled speculation throughout the centuries. To some extent the book itself is to blame for this, in the cryptic and provocative way the matter is presented in verse 18 (cf. below), seeming to invite all manner of speculation (much of which has been dubious and ill-founded, to say the least). For this reason, it is especially important to begin with a careful reading of the text and how it likely would have been understood by Christians in the late-1st century.

Revelation 3:16

“And he makes all (people)—the small and the great, the rich and the poor, the free and the slave—(so) that they should receive an engraved (mark) [xa/ragma] upon their receiving [i.e. right] hand or upon the (space) between their eyes…”

This description is clear enough. The only real question is whether the subject of poiei= (“he makes”) is the Earth-creature or the living image of the Sea-creature; the latter is to be preferred on the basis of the overall scenario, whereby it is the image that rules on earth as the Sea-creature’s representative (cf. the discussion in the previous note). In any case, every person on earth is given a xa/ragma, either on their right hand or on the middle of their forehead (“between the eyes”). The noun xa/ragma properly refers to something that is engraved into a surface, but can include the result of branding or stamping as well, along with more generalized use to indicate a “mark” or “sign”. Probably the more immediate reference here is to branding, as might occur for slaves or captured/defeated enemies, etc. There are examples of branding in a religious setting as well (cf. below). Some have thought that the specific reference to the hand and forehead could be an allusion to the Jewish phylacteries, in which the text of God’s command was ‘bound’ to a person, marking their religious identity and devotion.

Revelation 13:17

“…even (so) that no one would be able to go to the market-place (to purchase) or to sell (anything), if th(is person) was not holding the engraved (mark with) the name of the wild animal or the number of his name.”

The practical effect of this order is expressed by a pair of infinitives governed by the negative expression mh/ ti$ du/natai (“no one would be able [to]…”):

    • a)gora/sai, literally “go to the market-place”, the a)gora/ being the public square where commercial business (buying/selling) was being done. Here the verb also has the specific denotation of purchasing something (at the market-palce).
    • pwlh=sai, to deal in goods, to exchange, trade, sell, etc—that is, from the standpoint of the dealer or merchant (i.e. seller).

The principal statement thus is a comprehensive reference covering all kinds of commercial business (buying/selling/trading). No one would be able to engage in any such business if that person was not holding on their body the previously mentioned engraved mark (xa/ragma). An articular participle is used to express this (o( e&xw/n, “the [one] holding”), signifying the basic character and identity of the person. Implied here is that receiving the mark indicates the person’s identity as one who belongs to the Sea-creature and accepts his rule. There would seem to be three primary strands to the background of this imagery:

    • As a direct parallel to the seal given to believers, on the forehead, which marks them as belonging to God (lit. “slaves of God”) in the vision of chapter 7 (vv. 3ff). The seal refers to an engraved image stamped into a soft surface (of clay, wax, lead, etc), especially used to indicate that a particular document, etc, belongs to an individual. In 14:1, this seal is defined in terms of the name of the Lamb (and of God the Father) written on the believer’s forehead. Thus the basic imagery is identical—only here in chapter 13 it conveys just the opposite: that non-believers belong to the Sea-creature (and the Dragon). Ultimately, this idea likely derives from Ezekiel 9:4, or from a corresponding underlying tradition.
    • Roman imperial coinage was stamped with the image of the emperor, along with honorific/divine names and titles, and other symbols representing imperial power and/or associated with the imperial cult. Such a coin-stamp into metal could be called a xa/ragma. The obvious connection of coins with commercial activity throughout the empire makes this a key aspect of the symbolism. The very handling of such coins venerating the emperor forced Christians into the sort of ethical quandary that Jews in the Greco-Roman world had been facing for several centuries.
    • The specific act of branding of persons in a pagan religious setting. There is an example cited in 3 Maccabees 2:28-29 that is close in meaning to the scenario in Rev 13:13-18. Jews in Alexandria (3rd century B.C.) were required to have the image of an ivy-leaf, sign of the god Dionysus, branded on their bodies, and those who refused this were put to death (cf. Koester, p. 595).

Neither at the time the book of Revelation was written, nor in the following two centuries, were Christians intentionally barred from commercial activity along the lines described here in the vision. So, then, how should this be understood? Given the pervasiveness of the imperial cult throughout society, including within the economic sphere, believers in the provinces (of Asia Minor, etc) were already being forced to recognize, and in some sense accept, the symbols of the cult as an established and ordinary part of daily life. It was a simple enough matter to envision a more coercive application of this established order, especially in the setting of the period of intense persecution anticipated in these visions. The viewpoint of the book of Revelation was that the entire Roman imperial establishment, as an embodiment of worldly and Satanic rule, was fundamentally wicked. It was already corrupting and controlling people even without the universal coercive measures described in the chap. 13 visions.

Revelation 13:18

“Here is wisdom: the (one) holding a mind (to reason) must work (out) with pebbles [i.e. compute] th(is) number of the wild animal—for it is (the) number of a man, and his number (is) six-hundred sixty six.”

How much simpler would a study of this vision (and the book of Revelation as a whole) be without this verse! It has resulted in all manner of speculation, much of it quite unhealthy. And, in spite what the author/visionary says at the start of the verse, it has proven virtually impossible for Christians to solve this numeric riddle in any meaningful or convincing way. At least this is so for Christians living after the first century, since already by the mid/late-second century a knowledgeable author such as Irenaeus, so well-informed regarding early tradition, can only make vague guesses as to its meaning (Against Heresies V.30). We might assume that believers living around the time of the book’s writing (late-1st century), and members of the circle of congregations (in Asia Minor) to whom it was addressed, may have had a clearer sense of what was intended; but, if so, that is now lost to us today.

All that we can be sure of is that the numerical cypher involved a process referred to as gematria, best known from its application by Jewish writers and commentators as a mode of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. In both Hebrew and Greek, letters of the alphabet were used to represent numbers, meaning that individual words and phrases carried a certain numeric value, obtained by adding up the letters. This is why the author/seer instructs his audience to compute (lit. adding by “using pebbles”) the number of the engraved name. Even though the various figures and images used throughout the book of Revelation are symbolic, and, for the most part, do not necessarily refer to a specific person or thing, here it would seem that the author does have in mind a specific name. The directive to compute the name would result in a specious bit of symbolism if a definite name were not involved. However, there are still a number of ways one might interpret the idea of specific name here; these can be reduced to two primary approaches:

    • The name is still symbolic, i.e. it does not necessarily refer to a specific historical person. Admittedly, the author does say that “it is the number of a man”, but this could simply mean that it is a human name serving as the symbol, just as the territorial name of “Babylon” is used in subsequent visions.
    • The name is meant refer to a concrete individual, presumably a particular ruler, perhaps a specific Roman emperor.

The direction given by the author to his audience—i.e. those living in Asia Minor at the time—would be virtually meaningless if it did not refer to a name/person that could be identified. This fact generally invalidates any interpretive approach that requires discovery of the name by Christians living hundreds (or thousands) of years later. Perhaps the most common solution to the numeric riddle, accepted by many commentators as being at least the most plausible to date, is that it represents a transliteration in Hebrew of “Nero Caesar” (rsq /wrn), a form attested in several documents from the first and early-second centuries A.D. This would fit the basic setting and background of the book, including imagery that likely draws (in part) on legends surrounding Nero (as will be discussed further in subsequent notes). However, the main problem is that this theory assumes that the Greek-speaking audience of the book would be familiar enough with Hebrew to make such a calculation, and this is far from certain (cf. the explanation of Hebrew words in 9:11; 16:16). A computation involving a particular Greek name would be more likely.

In several manuscripts (Ë115 C) and other ancient witnesses, the number cited in verse 18 is 616 rather than 666. This has given rise to the possibility that the intended name is the Greek form of “Gaius Caesar” (Gaio$ Kaisar), which adds up to 616. Gaius (Caligula) was the most notorious emperor of the first century, after Nero. According to Josephus (Antiquities 18.261), Gaius had ordered his statue to be set up in the Jerusalem Temple, making him a kind of 1st-century fulfillment of Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 9:27; 11:31ff), and a suitable point of reference for the eschatological predictions in Mark 13:14 par; 2 Thess 2:4ff.

For other examples of gematria applied to the specific names of rulers and other leading figures, and as a way to identify them, note e.g., Lucian Alexander 11; Sibylline Oracles 1.137-46, 324-9; 5.1-51; cf. Koester, p. 606.

Given the fact that so much of the imagery in the book of Revelation, especially here in chapter 13 and the visions which follow, is related, at a basic level, to the contemporary reality of the Roman Empire and the Imperial cult, it seems quite plausible that the name/number of the Sea-creature’s mark is that of a Roman emperor (such as Nero or Gaius). If the book of Revelation were written during Nero’s reign, then a veiled reference to him would be quite likely. More probable, however, is that the author intends to compare the Sea-creature’s rule in terms of the wicked emperors Gaius and/or Nero, but cannot mention their names except by hidden code. To name them outright would be both impious and contrary to the symbolic style and artistry of the book. Even Rome itself cannot be mentioned explicitly, but only referred to through certain symbolic details or other names such as “Babylon”.

Admittedly, this is far from a satisfactory solution; however, a more definitive interpretation, such as this is even possible, will have to wait until we have studied the remaining visions in the book which make reference to the Sea-creature and his “mark”. Before proceeding to an examination of the chapter 14 visions, it may be worth summarizing those in chapter 13, especially in terms of the relationship between the two creatures (of Sea and Earth)—this I will do in the next daily note.

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October 19: Revelation 13:13-15

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

The appearance and character of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) coming up out of the Earth was described in vv. 11-12 (cf. the previous note); now in vv. 13-18 the creature’s actions are described. These actions are intended to ensure that all people on the earth worship the Sea-creature, and are centered on both an image (ei)kw/n) and ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) of the creature. The image (vv. 13-15) reflects civic pressure to conform, while the ‘mark’ (vv. 16-18) involves commercial pressure. Christians in all times and places have faced pressure (and persecution) on both of these fronts, to varying degrees. And, correspondingly, the symbolism here can have a universal application to believers everywhere. However, we must begin with, and focus primarily on, an examination of this vision from the standpoint of how it would have been understood by the author and Christians (living in Asia Minor) at the time. This is all the more important here, since the details of vv. 13-18 have been subject to all kinds of speculation, much of it quite implausible (even preposterous), and nearly all of it far removed from the original setting of the book.

Revelation 13:13

“And he makes great signs (happen), (so) that he should even make fire step [i.e. come] down out of the heaven (and) onto the earth, in the sight of all men…”

This first statement draws upon the notice in verse 12 that the Earth-creature acts with the authority/ability (e)cousi/a) of the Sea-creature. Literally it was said that the Earth-creature “makes” (poiei=) things happen with that authority, and also makes that authority function on the earth, which is his domain. The same basic verb (poie/w, “do, make”) is used here to clarify something of how this authority and power is made manifest: “he makes [poiei=] great signs [shmei=a mega/la] (happen)”. The noun shmei=on can indeed be used to refer to miracles a person performs, but only so far as they are an indication (and demonstration) of divine/supernatural power. Elsewhere in the book of Revelation shmei=on is used for momentous images seen by the visionary, which are clearly recognized to be of great significance and meaning (12:1, 3; 15:1). However, in 16:14 and 19:20, the plural again occurs in precisely the same context as it does here—for the supernatural power and miracles demonstrated by the creature.

These miracles are understood to be real (i.e. not illusory), performed through the evil (demonic/Satanic) power of the Dragon. This is made clear enough in 16:14, as it is also of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (see v. 9), an eschatological passage which has much in common with the visions of Rev 13. In 2 Thess 2:9, the “signs” are said to be false (yeu=do$), in the sense that they deceive people and lead them astray. Here, too, the Earth-creature has the nature of a “false prophet”, an association made explicit in the subsequent visions (16:13; 19:20). In particular, the image of bringing down fire from heaven draws upon the famous traditions in the Elijah narratives (1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12). The motif came to be a traditional allusion to prophetic ability and power (Luke 9:54, etc). The idea of fire from heaven also relates to the essential imagery of storm and sky deities (including Zeus in the Greco-Roman world), manifest in, but not limited to, the natural phenomenon of fires being started on earth from bolts of lightning.

In passing, it is worth noting here that miracles and supernatural events often surrounded prominent leaders, as part of the general superstition and religious understanding of the ancient world. In particular, supposed miraculous events involving the Roman emperors were part of the fabric of the Imperial cult. We might mention certain legendary details associated with the emperor Vespasian (Tacitus Histories 1.86; 4.81.1-3; Suetonius Vespasian 5.7; 7.2; cf. Koester, p. 592), whose reign (69-79 A.D.) likely occurred not long before the writing of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 13:14

“…and he makes all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth go astray through the signs, th(ose) for which power was given to him to make (happen), in the sight of the wild animal, saying to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth (that they are) to make an image [ei)kw/n] for the wild animal, th(e one) which held a strike of the sword and (yet) lived.”

Here we see the effect of the supernatural “signs” performed by the Earth-creature. It is said that he tells the people of earth to make an image of the Sea-creature, but, in a real sense, this is the result of the signs he performs—that is, the miracles themselves “tell” the people how to act. However, we also have the idea here of people on the earth—some of them, at least—beginning to act in the service of the Earth-creature, which likely implies some level of political or governmental cooperation. The effect of the signs is also describing primarily in the traditional (religious) language of people going astray (“wandering”, vb. plana/w); the same idea is present in 2 Thess 2:10-11, and also characterizes the end-time period of distress in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:5-6 par; Matt 24:24), where it is part of a specific warning to believers. The Dragon (i.e. Satan) is characterized (and personified) as one who leads people astray (12:9), that is, promoting falsehood and also inciting people to evil. In 2:20 the verb is used of false teaching by supposed believers (cp. the discussion in 1 John). The verb takes on greater prominence as the eschatological conflict reaches its climax in the later visions of the book (18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10).

The image (ei)kw/n) that is created depicts the seven-headed Sea-creature (apparently the likeness extends to include the detail of his fatal and miraculously healed wound). The specific wording here can easily be lost in translation; but there is a clear parallel:

    • the Earth-creature is able to make (poih=sai) these great signs happen in the sight of the Sea-creature
    • the people on earth are led to make (poih=sai) an image that visually resembles the Sea-creature

The word ei)kw/n, referring to a copy or that which resembles something (or someone) else, is relatively rare in the New Testament (used 23 times). In all 10 occurrences in Revelation, it refers to this image of the evil Sea-creature (who also resembles the Dragon). The majority of other occurrences are found in the Pauline letters, where it tends to have Christological meaning (see esp. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). Just as Christ is the image of God, so also believers in Christ take on his image. Something of this connotation may be intended here in the Rev 13 visions as well, part of the evil parody of Jesus represented by the two creatures—i.e. non-believers on earth follow after the image of the wicked creature, even as believers conform to the image of Jesus.

Revelation 13:15

“And it was given him to give spirit/breath [pneu=ma] to the image of the wild animal, (so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk and would make (it so) [that], if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off.”

The narration here is powerful and evocative; and, in order to avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary to examine each component and detail carefully. First, we should note the three-fold reference to the image (ei)kw/n)—in each occurrence the full expression “the image of the wild animal” is used, repeatedly emphasizing that it is specifically an image of the evil Sea-creature.

“it was given him to give pneu=ma to the image…” The dual use of the same verb (di/dwmi, “give”) is often avoided in translation, but it is important to preserve it here, as a way of reinforcing the idea of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature working in tandem. Power is given by the Dragon to the Sea-creature, who then gives it to the Earth-creature, who, in turn, gives it to the image of the Sea-creature on earth. This reflects a key aspect of the vision which is often overlooked. The domain of the Sea-creature is the Sea, and, in order to exercise his authority fully on the Earth, he needs the cooperation of the Earth-creature. The Earth-creature effectively facilitates the Sea-creature’s control on earth through this image of the Sea-creature.

Here the noun pneu=ma is used in its ordinary sense of “spirit” —i.e. the animating spirit or “breath” that gives life and movement to a living being. An allusion to the Spirit of God may also be intended, as part of the evil parody of the two creatures with Jesus. Believers are moved and given life by the Spirit, while non-believers are controlled by the evil/demonic “spirit” that animates the image of the Creature. Admittedly, references to the Spirit (Pneu=ma) are relatively rare in the book of Revelation, but it would be easy enough for Christian readers here to draw the parallel.

“(so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk” This animating “spirit” makes the image of the Sea-creature come to life (or at least seem to), to the point that it could even talk. This is presumably meant to depict a genuine miracle or supernatural event, rather than a trick, though there are ancient examples of attempts to create the illusion that statues, etc, were moving and talking (e.g., Bel and the Dragon 1-26; Lucian Alexander 26; Koester, p. 593). The idea that magicians and wonder-workers might bring statues and figurines to life was a relatively common feature in ancient tales. In the vision here, however, this takes on a special significance, since it is this living/speaking/acting image that allows the Sea-creature to exercise his rule on the earth.

“and would make (it so) [that]…” The Greek syntax is unclear, but it would seem that the subjunctive “would make” (poih/sh|) is parallel to the earlier “would speak” (lalh/sh|), and thus refers to the action of the image rather than the Earth-creature himself. This creates an interesting scenario—i.e., the image orders people worship to the image. However, this, I believe, is precisely what the visions intend to represent. Note the way the forces of evil function according to the overall imagery of the vision:

    • The Dragon works through =>
      • the Sea-creature, who works through =>
        • the Earth-creature, who works through =>
          • the living image of the Sea-creature; and, through
        • this comprehensive power present in the image =>
      • people come to worship the image of the Sea-creature, and in turn =>
    • they worship the Dragon

This gives to this scene a subtle difference from the most obvious parallel—namely, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3.

“if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off” This wording generally corresponds to the command given by Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:4-6), and certainly the vision here alludes to that famous Scriptural episode. The righteous ones (Daniel and his companions) were faced with the choice of complying with the command to show obedience to the royal power by venerating its image (i.e. the great statue), or to face the punishment of death. Believers in the Roman Empire faced a similar choice with the regard to the pervasive presence of the Imperial cult. Statues of the emperor, etc, could be seen, not only in the temples, but in many other public places, having been erected and dedicated by influential citizens and civic groups. As such, they were a clear and prominent representation of the Imperial cult—i.e. the public worship of the Empire and its rule.

Admittedly, there is little evidence, even in the book of Revelation itself, of any widespread persecution by the authorities at the time the book was written. The notice given to the example of Antipas in 2:13 suggests that executions of believers were a relatively rare occurrence. Much more common would have been the imprisonment for the purposes of interrogation. However, the author/visionary clearly expects that this persecution would intensify considerably, with imprisonment and execution referenced specifically in 13:10, as a manifestation of how the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) “makes war” on believers. There would, in fact, be periods of more widespread, state-sponsored persecution of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Decius (249-251), Valerian (253-26o), and Diocletian (284-305). The extent of imperial persecution in the late 1st and early 2nd century remains uncertain and debated. The period of arrests and public executions under Nero (64 A.D.) was brief and limited to the city of Rome. A more widespread persecution was thought to have occurred during Domitian’s reign (81-96)—often considered to be contemporaneous with the writing of Revelation—but this has since been re-evaluated by historians.

As it happens, we do have an example, from the reign of Trajan (98-117), which is actually quite close to what is described in Revelation 13:15. Pliny the Younger served as governor of Bithynia and Pontus (in Asia Minor), c. 110-113 A.D. He had occasion to write to the emperor regarding the investigation and punishment of Christians, seeking guidance and instruction on the matter (Epistle 10.96). As part of his attempt to identify those who were actual Christians, Pliny describes his use of a statue of the emperor as a means of testing:

“I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your [the emperor’s] statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do. Others … did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.” (10.96.5-6, translation Koester, p. 594)

Interestingly, the emperor wrote back (Ep. 10.97) to Pliny saying that he approved of the method of testing, but insisted that Christians were not to be hunted down. This, along with the fact that a governor had to ask for guidance about how to deal with Christians in the first place, indicates that persecution of believers in the provinces was by no means widespread or common at the time. We do not have clear documentation for a similar use of statues of the emperor in subsequent periods of imperial persecution, but the detail is mentioned in a number of the martyrdom narratives (set during the 2nd-3rd century persecutions).

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October 15: Revelation 13:5-10

Revelation 12:18-13:10 (Continued)

The first part of this vision (13:1-4), describing the “wild animal” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, was examined in the previous note. If we were to outline the vision itself, it would be:

    • Appearance and description of the creature (vv. 1-4)
    • Action of the creature—making war on believers (vv. 5-8)
    • Concluding exhortation for believers (vv. 9-10)
Revelation 13:5

“And a mouth speaking great (thing)s and insults (against God) was given to him, and (the) e)cousi/a was given to him to do (this for) forty [and] two months.”

Just as the mouth (sto/ma) of the Dragon poured out destructive waters against the Woman (i.e. the People of God), so the mouth of the Sea-creature (which resembles the Dragon) sends out (“speaks”) prideful and arrogant things that are against God. Like the vision as a whole, this detail comes from Daniel 7 and the description of the fourth beast (vv. 8, 11, 25). There it is one particular horn (i.e. one king) which has such a mouth; here, it is not one horn or head, but the creature itself. Most commentators would identify the arrogant-speaking horn/king with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, particularly in light of the detail in other passages (9:24-27; 11:36-39). The description in Rev 13:5ff specifically echoes that of Dan 7:25, with the combination of three details: (1) speaking words against the Most High, (2) afflicting the holy ones, and (3) his power limited to a period of 3½ years (“time, times and half a time”).

The power to rule and act comes from the Dragon (v. 4), and yet the passive e)do/qh, “was given”, here (and in v. 7) is better understood as the so-called “divine passive” with God as the implied agent. In other words, it is God who ultimately gives to the creature, in the sense of allowing or permitting it, the ability to act as he does. The noun e)cousi/a (untranslated above) indicates both the authority and ability to do something. This authority is limited (by God) to a period of “forty-two months”, which is another way of referring to the symbolic 3½ years that marks the end-time period of distress (12:14 [Dan 7:25], etc).

Revelation 13:6

“And he opened up his mouth unto insult(s) toward God, to insult His Name and His Tent—the (one)s setting up (their) tent [i.e. dwelling] in heaven.”

As previously noted, blasfhmi/a means insult, usually in the religious sense as an insult toward/against God (i.e. “blasphemy”), often so implied but here made explicit. In particular, the creature insults God’s name and his tent (skhnh/, i.e. dwelling-place). In v. 2, the creature is said to have upon his head names insulting to God; now, it is God’s own name that he insults. These are flip sides of the same basic image. In the ancient world, as part of a quasi-magical way of thinking, a person’s name was identified closely with the person himself (or herself)—that is, as an embodiment of the essential identity, nature, and character of the person. Thus an attack on God’s name was effectively an attack on God Himself.

The “tent” of God refers back to the old tent-shrine (i.e. ‘Tabernacle’) tradition from Israelite history, realized anew in Jerusalem Temple. References to the Temple in the book of Revelation locate it in heaven, as a figure for the dwelling of God (and the People of God). At the time the book was written, the Jerusalem Temple had likely been destroyed; however, even before its destruction, there was an early Christian tendency to identify the true Temple with believers (i.e. the People of God)—both collectively and individually (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Rev 3:12). This was more or less done in the earlier vision of 11:1-2ff, and the identification is even more explicit here. Admittedly, in some manuscripts there is a conjunction kai/ (“and”), which makes “the ones setting up their tent in heaven” distinct from the actual “Tent” of God; however, the phrase is better viewed as an explanatory statement interpreting the Tent/Dwelling of God. It refers to all the People of God, especially in its heavenly aspect, which can encompass both Angels and believers (particularly those put to death for their faith).

Revelation 13:7

“And it was given to him to make war with the holy (one)s, and to be victorious (over) them, and e)cousi/a was given to him upon [i.e. over] every offshoot (of the human race), and (every) people and tongue and nation.”

Here again is the divine passive (e)do/qh, “it was given”), i.e. God permits/allows the creature to have control and authority over people on earth, including believers. In that the creature “makes war with the holy (one)s”, it shows that he acts as the Dragon’s ally in making war on believers (12:17), and that the visions in chapters 12 and 13 are certainly so connected. There is a different nuance of the verb nika/w (“be victorious [over]”) here compared with how it was used earlier in 12:11. There believers are said to be victorious over the Dragon, but now the Dragon is victorious over them. The latter sense of being victorious is secondary, and temporary—it refers to the creature’s ability to attack believers, leading to their imprisonment and being put to death (cf. on vv. 9-10 below). This temporary “victory” of the Dragon and his allies actually ends up in final/permanent victory for the People of God.

Again God allows the creature to have e)cousi/a over all of humankind—every race and nation—indicating his authority and governing control. This means both that: (a) the creature is allowed to attack believers everywhere, and (b) he exercises full control (and rule) over people on earth. That this generally characterizes the Roman Empire, from the standpoint and worldview of people (living in the Empire) at the time, seems clear enough. Attempts to extend the universality of the creature’s rule to cover an ethic/geographic extent of humankind that accords with our vantage point today are questionable at best. We must read the text primarily in terms of the worldview that would have prevailed at the time. Application to the situation of believers today, while important, should be a secondary concern in our interpretation.

Revelation 13:8

“And they shall kiss toward [i.e. worship] him, all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, (every one) for whom his name is not written in the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of Life—(that) of [i.e. belonging to] the Lamb, the (one) having been slain—from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world.”

The worship/veneration of the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) was mentioned in verse 4, and likely reflects the Imperial cult that had been established, and was widespread throughout the Empire, by the end of the first century. On this, cf. the discussion in the previous note, as well as the earlier notes on the letters to the churches (chaps. 2-3). It is clear, however, that the author/seer now envisions a much more serious (and widespread) situation, whereby everyone on earth venerates the Sea-creature and his rule. Only (true) believers in Christ do not succumb to the influence and power of the creature (cf. the concluding discussion below). This is framed in terms of predestination (to use the classic theological term)—those who are true believers, and thus will not worship the Sea-creature, have had their names already written down in the “scroll of Life”. This idiom draws upon two basic lines of tradition: (1) the Old Testament image in Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28, etc, and (2) the idea of citizens, i.e. in the Greco-Roman world, being registered as belonging to a particular city. The “city” for believers in the book of Revelation, of course, is the heavenly New Jerusalem (cp. Phil 3:20ff; Heb 12:22-24). The eschatological (and Judgment) context of the “scroll of Life” image can be seen, e.g., in Daniel 12:1, and again in the book of Revelation (20:11-15; 21:27).

The syntax of v. 8b is a bit confusing, and can be read two different ways, based on how one relates the final phrase “from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world”. Does it modify the expression “the Lamb the (one) having been slain” immediately preceding, or the earlier phrase “…written down in the scroll of Life”? The first option implies that Jesus was slain (or destined to be slain) from the beginning of creation; this idea is expressed in 1 Peter 1:19-20, but is otherwise not to be found in the New Testament. The second option is to be preferred, based on the clear parallel in Rev 17:8. This means that believers have been destined for (eternal) Life since the beginning of creation. We must, however, be cautious about reading modern concepts (and questions) regarding “predestination” into passages such as this. While a basic belief in predestination is found throughout the New Testament, it goes hand in hand with another basic belief—that human beings are able to choose to accept or reject the truth (of God and Christ). Difficulties arise when attempts are made to place these two beliefs within a more detailed, systematic philosophical and theological framework; such difficulties, to be sure, remain today, and go far beyond the scope of these notes.

Revelation 13:9-10

“If any(one) holds an ear (to hear), he must hear (this). If one (is set) into being taken by spear-point, (then) he goes away into being taken by spear-point; if one (is set for) his being killed off in a sword (strike), (then so he is) to be killed off in a sword (strike). Here is (to be found) the remaining under [i.e. endurance] and the trust of the holy (one)s.”

The exhortation in verse 9 follows the pattern used at the conclusion of the letters to the congregations (2:7, etc). For the prediction in v. 10a, I have attempted to rendered it as literally as possible. The terseness of the syntax, with its repetition of phrases, makes for very awkward English. However, the basic line of expression may be paraphrased more smoothly as: “If one is destined to be taken by spear-point, he will go off captive at spear-point; if one is destined to be killed by the sword, he is killed by the sword”. This goes back to the idea of predestination in verse 8 (cf. above). Just as believers are (pre)destined for eternal Life, so they are also destined to face persecution. For many, but certainly not all, this will include both (a) imprisonment (“taken by spear-point”) and (b) being put to death (“in a sword [strike]”). The specific idiom utilizes military language, which is appropriate to the basic idea of the creature “making war” on believers.

As the concluding words make clear, it is this experience of persecution—to the point of imprisonment and death—that marks the character of true believers. This is expressed by two common terms, both of which take on greater significance in this period of testing and distress:

(1) u(pomonh/, literally “remaining under”, i.e. enduring, staying strong, keeping faith, etc. It characterizes believers in 1:9, and again throughout the letters to the churches (2:2-3, 19; 3:10). The same basic declaration here is repeated at 14:12.

(2) pi/sti$, “trust”. This of course means trust (i.e. faith) in Jesus Christ. As such, it is one of the most common Christian terms in the New Testament; however, somewhat surprisingly, it is rather rare in the book of Revelation, occurring only three other times: twice in the letters to the churches (2:13, 19) and in the parallel declaration at 14:12.

Concluding note

In conclusion of our discussion of this vision, it is worth asking whether, or to what extent, the author/seer thought that it was possible for believers to be influenced by the Sea-creature. Clearly, no true believer could actually worship the creature; but, if there was no real danger of being tempted or adversely influenced, it is hard to explain the repeated warnings and exhortations throughout the book. If we accept a basic, underlying identification with the Roman Empire and its Imperial cult, etc, then the Sea-creature represents an extension (and intensification) of something believers living in Asia Minor (and elsewhere) had to deal with on a daily basis. So pervasive was the pagan Roman (Imperial) culture, that it would have been hard for Christians to avoid, and, in doing so, there would have been consequences. Unwillingness to participate in the cultural and civic events would have put believers at odds with the society around them, even if they never ended up being imprisoned or put to death by the authorities. There are many different levels of persecution that believers may face.

Ultimately, this ties back to the idea of predestination expressed in verses 8-10 (see above). The persecution experienced by believers, as part of the time of distress, is for them a period of testing, and, indeed, this persecution will reveal just who the true believers are. Jesus says as much in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, that “the (one) remaining under [vb u(pome/nw, i.e. enduring] unto the completion, that (person) will be saved” (Mk 13:13 par). The deception from political and (pseudo-)religious leaders in the time of distress will be so great that even the Elect (i.e. true believers) might almost be led astray by it (v. 22 par). This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes on the second vision of chapter 13 (vv. 11-18).

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October 13: Revelation 12:13-17

Revelation 12:13-17

“And when the Fabulous (Creature) saw that he was thrown (down) onto the earth, he pursued the (same) Woman who (had) produced the male (child). And the two wings of a great eagle were given to the woman, (so) that she might take wing [i.e. fly] into the desolate land, into her place (in) which she will be nourished there—for a time, times, and half a time—(away) from the face of the Snake.” (vv. 13-14)

This episode continues the conflict between the “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn) and the Woman from vv. 1-6. As I discussed in the prior note on that passage, the Woman should be understood as representing the People of God, in both a heavenly and earthly aspect. Similarly, the Dragon embodies the forces/powers of evil and wickedness; it, too, has both heavenly and earthly aspects. This dual-aspect of the symbolism—heavenly and earthly—is the key to understanding this passage; it also reflects the overall eschatological worldview of the book as a whole. This is similar, in many respects, to the outlook of the Community of the Qumran texts, which viewed itself as the “holy ones” on earth, in conjunction with the “Holy Ones” in heaven (i.e. Michael and the Angels). The two dimensions existed and functioned in tandem, on parallel levels, but would come to be more properly united, working and acting together, at the end time. The War Scroll (1QM) is perhaps the best example of this eschatological expectation, whether realized figuratively or as a concrete historical event, as the Community and Angelic forces join together in a war between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness”. Revelation 12 evinces a similar sort of military imagery, with the forces of evil (the Dragon) “making war” against the People of God.

While the three episodes of chapter 12 make up a three-part narrative, it is also possible to view vv. 7-17 as a kind of unit, with a parallel/chiastic structure:

    • Dragon makes war on the People of God (Angels) in heaven (vv. 7)
      • He is unable to prevail in heaven (v. 8)
        • He is thrown down to earth (v. 9)
          • Voice sounding the victory of the Kingdom of God (vv. 10-12)
        • Conflict on earth with the Woman (vv. 13ff)
      • He is unable to prevail on earth (v. 16)
    • Dragon makes war on the People of God (Believers) on earth (v. 17)
Revelation 12:13 (translation above)

In the first episode, the Dragon stands close by, threatening the Woman and waiting to devour her (first-born) male child (v. 4). The child, clearly to be identified with Jesus Christ, was “seized” and taken up to God (i.e. the resurrection/ascension/exaltation of Jesus) away from the Dragon’s grasp. Now the monster is only able to go after the Woman, and he pursues her. This verb (diw/kw) is often used in the sense of pursuing someone with hostile intent, and so came to be a technical term for the persecution of believers. While the Woman clearly has a heavenly aspect (v. 1), as noted above, it is the earthly aspect that is primarily emphasized in this vision. As the People of God, the Woman represents Israel, but should not be limited to such an identification. In the first episode, representing the period of Jesus’ birth and earthly life, it would be proper to understand the Woman as the People of God according to the Old Covenant (cf. the Lukan Infancy narratives for examples of this emphasis). Here, however, the vision is describing the period after Jesus’ resurrection; and yet, believers in Christ are not specifically mentioned until the end of the episode (v. 17). It is, perhaps, best to see the Woman here as representing the People of God according to the New Covenant, understood at first (vv. 13-16) in a general sense.

Revelation 12:14 (translation above)

There are three key motifs in this verse:

    • the wings of an eagle—In Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the wings of an eagle (Gk. a)eto/$) are used to symbolize the salvation and protection God provides for his people (cf. Exod 19:4; Deut 32:10-12; also Isa 40:31; Psalm 103:5, etc). In particular, the Exodus/Wilderness setting of Exod 19:4 and Deut 32:10ff is probably in view here. The passive form of e)do/qhsan (“was given”) is an example of the “divine passive”, where God is the implied actor. The parallel in Rev 17:3 would suggest that the great bird-image here essentially refers to the Spirit.
    • flight into the desert—In Israelite/Jewish history and tradition, the desert (Gk. e&rhmo$, “desolate [land]”) is a place to which one flees for safety and protection. In the case of God’s people, alone in the desert, they must then rely entirely upon God (YHWH) himself for care and sustenance. The most prominent example, of course, is the wilderness wanderings of Israel (Exodus 16ff; Deut 32:10ff, etc); but there are other notable traditions involving Hagar/Ishmael (Gen 16:1-13; 21:8-19), Moses (Exod 2:15-3:1), David (1 Sam 23:25), and Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-7; 19:4-8). Jesus was similarly sustained in the desert, according to the early Gospel tradition in Mark 1:12-13 par; and there is also the famous tradition of the Flight to Egypt in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2:13-15). From such imagery developed the religious-spiritual tradition of the desert as the place where a person encounters the presence of God (Isa 40:3ff; Hos 2:14, etc).
    • “time, times, and half a time” —This expression comes from the book of Daniel (Dan 7:25; 12:7), and is another way of referring to the 3½ years that marks the end-time period of distress. The orientation of the book of Revelation suggests that believers were living at the very beginning or onset of this period, during which they would endure intense persecution (cf. below).

It is likely that the “place” (to/po$) the Woman finds (with God) in the desert is meant to echo the “place” (to/po$) that the Dragon (Satan and the other Angels) loses in heaven (v. 8).

Revelation 12:15-16

“And the Snake cast out of his mouth, in back of [i.e. after] the Woman, water as a (great) river, (so) that he might make her (to be) carried (away) by the river. And the Earth ran to the cry (of) the Woman and opened up her mouth, and drank down the river which the Fabulous (Creature) cast out of his mouth.”

This vision-narrative here is replete with a closely connected set of mythological images. In addition to the figures of the Woman and Dragon, the Earth (gh=) is personified as well. Like the Woman and Dragon, it too has a kind of dual aspect. Note—

1. There is a close affinity between Earth and the Woman. As noted above, here the Woman represents the People of God on earth—that is, human believers (cf. below). Also the word gh= is grammatically feminine, and so Earth is personified as a woman. Traditionally, such mythic-cosmological personifications of Earth have a strong fertility component—i.e. the Earth as a Mother, giving birth to life on earth. In the vision, the Woman is also principally a mother, so it is quite natural that the personified Earth would seek to help her.

2. At the same time, there is also a kind of parallel between the Earth and the Dragon, which foreshadows the following visions in chapter 13 (cf. the prior warning in v. 12). Just as the Dragon opens its mouth (sto/ma) to blast out water, so also the Earth opens her mouth (sto/ma) to contain it. The Dragon lost its place in Heaven, and so it now forced to reside on the Earth; many Snake/Serpent traditions in ancient myth have a strong chthonic aspect—i.e., tying it to pattern of earthly/material existence, the boundaries of the created order, etc.

The matrix of images Earth-Water-River here also serves as an important symbol with several levels of meaning:

    • The natural motif related to rivers in the desert (including many of the rivers in Palestine)—dry river beds (wadis) which are filled suddenly with water by powerful rain-torrents. This is generally a positive image of life and sustenance (Psalm 105:41; Isa 43:19), but it could also signify a time of great danger (i.e. for someone standing in/near the river-bed).
    • In the Exodus traditions, during the wanderings in the desert, God provided for Israel with water-streams that came out of the rock (Exod 17:6; Psalm 78:16). Here we have the reverse image of the earth (i.e. the desert ‘rocks’) helping the people of God by taking back in the waters.
    • Also in the wilderness period traditions, we have the episode of the Korah rebellion, in which the earth “opened up” to swallow the wicked rebels (Num 16:32-34). Here the earth responds similarly to swallow up the evil waters of the Dragon; implicit is the idea that the earth (like all of creation) responds to the will and command of God (cf. Wisdom 16:17ff; 19:6; Koester, p. 554).

As in vv. 13-14, here the Fabulous Creature or Dragon (dra/kwn, v. 16) is identified as a great Snake (o&fi$, v. 15), reflecting both: (1) a snake-like appearance, and (2) the Serpent of Genesis 3 as a personification/manifestation of the Evil One (Satan/Devil), as the earlier aside in v. 9 makes clear. The name Dia/bolo$ (i.e. Devil) is derived from the verb ba/llw (“throw, cast”), literally referring to one who “throws over” accusations/insults, or who “casts (evil) throughout”. Here the Dragon/Snake is said to “cast” (e&balen, from ba/llw) out the destructive waters against the Woman from its mouth.

Revelation 12:17

“And (so) the Fabulous (Creature) was in anger about the Woman, and went from (there) to make war with the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed, the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and holding the witness of Yeshua.”

Unable to destroy the Woman, the Dragon goes away to focus on attacking her children. This is the first we hear in the vision of any other children by the Woman. It is to be inferred that, after the birth of her (first) male child (Jesus), she gave birth to other children, here expressed as “the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed”. How are we to understand this distinction between the Dragon’s attack on the Woman, and that against her remaining children? Are the Woman and her Children two different figures or aspects of the same basic image. On the one hand, they are different:

    • 1st Episode: Woman = People of God under the Old Covenant
      • Jesus (the Messiah) is the male child born of her
    • 2nd Episode: Woman = People of God under the New Covenant
      • Believers in Christ are the children born of her

On the other hand, we may see it as the same image—i.e., the Woman represents the People of God on earth, under the New Covenant, which is equal to all believers in Christ. The specific expression “the remainder of her seed” probably means simply all other children after Jesus, distinguishing believers from Jesus himself. Conceivably, the idea of “remaining” could also imply believers who are still alive after the attack on the Woman (i.e. an initial period of persecution). These children of the Woman are here defined as believers, by two phrases, describing them as those:

    • “keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God” and
    • “holding the witness of Yeshua”

With regard to the first phrase, I have left the plural noun e)ntolai/ untranslated above. Typically it is translated as “commandments”, but literally the word e)ntolh/ refers to something (a duty, charge, etc) which is placed on someone to complete. The only other occurrence of the word in the book of Revelation is at 14:12, where the same phrase is used. The expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” here may be understood one of three ways:

    • It refers to the commands, precepts, etc, of the Old Testament Law (Torah), either in its full sense or as it might be applied to Christians.
    • It is equivalent to Paul’s expression “law of God” (no/mo$ qeou=, Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21), which I take to mean the will of God in the broader sense. Paul’s also uses the phrase “keeping watch over the e)ntolai/ of God” in 1 Cor 7:19, where “e)ntolai/ of God” probably has the same meaning as “law of God”.
    • It is being used in the Johannine sense, referring to the two-fold command—(1) true faith in Christ and (2) Christ-like love for fellow believers—expressed by the use of e)ntolh/ throughout the Gospel and Letters (see esp. 1 Jn 3:23-24).

In my view, the second option above best fits the context here in the book of Revelation. By “commands of God” (or the Pauline equivalent “law of God”), early Christians would surely have understood the idea of believers fulfilling the will of God by following the example and teaching of Jesus. The Pauline and Johannine emphasis on the Spirit as the source of guidance and teaching for believers in this regard is generally absent from the book of Revelation (but note the wording in 2:7 etc). Some commentators would see the reference to the “commands of God” here as an indication that Jewish Christians were specifically in view, but I find this to be unlikely. Throughout the book of Revelation, images and motifs from Israelite/Jewish tradition are consistently applied to believers—that is, all believers—in a general sense.

The second descriptive phrase in v. 17 is “the ones holding the witness of Yeshua”. The genitive could be understood as subjective (Jesus is giving the witness) or objective (it is witness about Jesus). In Rev 1:2, it is subjective, meaning that the witness/message comes from Jesus; however, elsewhere in the book, the idea of believers functioning as witnesses tends to dominate. Clearly, both concepts are related, and I would argue that we should give weight to them both here as well. The close connection between Jesus and believers as children of the Woman makes this all the more valid. In giving witness of the Gospel (about Jesus), believers follow the example of Jesus himself in giving witness. The verb e&xw should be translated literally (and concretely) as “hold”, conveying the idea of the need to hold firmly to the Gospel during the time of distress, parallel to the verb thre/w (“keep watch [over]”).

Some commentators would include the short sentence in 12:18 (“And he stood upon the sand of the Sea”) as part of the vision in chapter 12; however, it is best considered as part of the vision that follows in chapter 13. In many way, it is serves as a transition between the two visions, joining together the images of Earth and Sea (as in v. 12). I will discuss verse 18, together with the first portion of chapter 13 (vv. 1-10) in the next daily note.

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October 8: Revelation 11:3-14

Revelation 11:3-14

As discussed in the previous daily note, the scene involving the measuring of the Temple is transitional between chapter 10 and this vision of the ‘two witnesses’ in 11:3-14. It establishes the contrast between the “holy city” (with the Temple at the center) and the “great city”, an allegorical distinction between the people of God (true believers) and the surrounding world (the “nations”, spec. the Roman Empire). In this vision, the image has shifted from the shrine (nao/$) of God to a pair of persons—two witnesses:

“And I will give to my two witnesses and they will foretell [i.e. prophesy] for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in a coarse garment [sa/kko$].”

Much ink has been spilled regarding the identification of these two persons—how are they best understood? The visionary character of this section, in context, would suggest that they are figurative, and yet many commentators believe that it refers to a pair of actual (historical) persons expected to appear, or to be active, at the end-time. It is important to begin with the language used to describe them, and the Old Testament traditions which are involved. Three lines of interpretation may be mentioned:

    • Angels—i.e. heavenly beings sent by God as a witness to humankind prior to the Judgment; the reference to the “great city” as “Sodom” would certainly bring to mind the Abraham narrative in Genesis 19, and the two (heavenly) Messengers that come to the city.
    • Messiah-Prophets—the Messianic figure-type of Anointed Prophet, expected to appear at the end-time (prior to the Judgment), according to several traditional patterns, most notably Moses and Elijah (cf. below).
    • People of God (Believers)—that is to say, as witnesses, these two persons represent the people of God, the faithful believers as a whole.

All three of these are more or less clearly present in the text; the vision draws upon the distinct lines of tradition, in various ways, and a proper interpretation must take each of them into account. Let us begin with the primary identification of the two persons/figures as witnesses (ma/rtu$, sg.). The word occurs five times in the book of Revelation, being used in two distinct, but related, ways in the other four references:

    • Of the exalted Jesus, who is given the title “the trust(worthy) [pisto/$] witness” (1:5; 3:14)—this is best understood in two respects:
      • Jesus gives witness of God the Father (YHWH), proclaiming His word and will, and acting as His representative (cf. the context of 1:1ff)
      • This witness entails, in a fundamental way, the sacrificial death of Jesus (the Lamb)
    • Of believers, who follow the example of Jesus, bearing witness of Christ and the Gospel, especially insofar as they follow him to the death (i.e. beginnings of the technical use of the term [“martyr” in English]):
      • In 2:13, Antipas, who was put to death, is given the same title used of Jesus in 1:5—”the trustworthy witness”
      • In 17:16, the believers whose blood was shed are specifically called “witnesses of Yeshua

Is it possible that this two-fold aspect is implied by the fact that there are two witnesses mentioned? The next bit of evidence comes from the parallel identification in verse 4:

“These are the two olive (tree)s and the two lamp(stand)s, the (one)s having stood in the sight of the Lord of the earth.”

This imagery is drawn from the fourth chapter of Zechariah, and, again, there is a clear two-fold aspect involved:

    • Messianic—Olive oil was used for anointing, and, in the context of Zech 3-4, the two olive trees (vv. 3, 11) refer to Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua (“sons of oil”, v. 14) according to early Messianic/Anointed figure-types—Davidic ruler and Anointed Priest, respectively.
    • Heavenly/Angelic—The (seven) lampstands in Zech 4:2-3 are identified as the “eyes of the Lord” (vv. 10-11)—personalized as (heavenly/spirit) beings who represent YHWH in the world, i.e. Messengers (“Angels”), and, one might say, also witnesses. This is reproduced in the book of Revelation (1:4, 12-13, 20; 2:1ff; 5:6). At the same time, we should note:
      • The lampstands are also identified with believers collectively (i.e. congregations/churches), 1:20; 2:1, 5
      • The exalted Jesus is at the center of the lampstands, holding/controlling them (1:12-13; 2:1, cf. also 3:1; 5:6)

Verses 5-6 bring out a number of Messianic details, especially those connected with the Prophet figure-types of Moses and Elijah (for more on this, cf. Parts 2-3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”):

    • “fire travels out of their mouths” to “eat up” the enemies of God (v. 5)—the idea of the word of God, communicated by the Prophet, as fire is found in Jer 5:14, and is specifically associated with Elijah in Sirach 48:1. Indeed, in Old Testament tradition, Elijah called down fire from heaven (1 Kings 19:36-38). The more direct Messianic association comes from Isa 11:4, in which the mouth of the Messiah (vv. 1-3) slays the wicked. Paul draws upon this in a clear eschatological context in 2 Thess 2:8; as does the deutero-canonical book of 2/4 Esdras (13:10, 37-38, roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation), where the slaying power of the mouth is presented as fire. There is an interesting parallel here with the fire-breathing plague-army of the sixth Trumpet-vision (Rev 9:13-20).
    • “authority to close the heaven” so that rain does not fall (v. 6)—a clear allusion to the Elijah traditions (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1; Lk 4:25; James 5:17)
    • authority to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with plagues (v. 6)—Moses and the Plagues of Egypt (Exod 7:19, etc)

If verses 3-6 tend to emphasis the heavenly and Messianic character of the two witnesses, verses 7ff more clearly reflect the dual aspect of Jesus-Believers as true and faithful witnesses who are put to death. Their role as Heavenly/Messianic Prophets covers the period of 1,260 days (= 3½ years) during which they prophesy, wearing coarse garments (‘sackcloth’, sa/kko$), marking the coming of the Judgment and urging people to repent. In a sense, this period of preaching/prophesying is similar to that of John the Baptist, as well as Jesus (in his Galilean ministry), both of whom were identified in different ways as the Messianic Prophet (Elijah) who would appear at the end-time. Jesus was also associated with the end-time “Prophet like Moses”, though the Gospel tradition identifies him more closely with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1ff. In any case, it is after this time of prophetic proclamation/ministry, that Jesus comes to Jerusalem and is put to death. This Gospel narrative-matrix is very much at work here in Rev 11:3-14.

At the same time, verses 7ff open up an entirely separate line of imagery as well—that of the beast (i.e. wild animal, qhri/on) who attacks the people of God. It is this visionary conflict which dominates much of the second half of the book (beginning with chapter 12). It is introduced here, without any real explanation or elaboration:

“And when they should complete their witness, the wild (animal) stepping up out of the (pit) without depth [i.e. bottomless pit] will make war with them, and will be victorious (over) them and will kill them off.” (v. 7)

As the “beast” (wild animal) is clearly symbolic in the context of the visions which follow (to be discussed), it stands to reason that the two witness are figurative as well; this would seem to be confirmed by the description in verse 8, where several different images are blended together:

    • The body (singular) of the two witnesses is left laying in the streets of “the great city”, which is further given a hybrid identification:
      • Sodom—traditionally associated with wickedness/immorality (and the judgment which came upon it)
      • Egypt—the land of slavery for the people of God (Israel)
      • Jerusalem—here, literally, “where our Lord was put to the stake [i.e. crucified]”

Some commentators, relying on the last detail, would identify the “great city” flatly as Jerusalem (i.e. the actual city). However, I believe that this is overly simplistic, and, indeed, incorrect. In my view the designation “the great city” is meant as a specific contrast to “the holy city” (i.e. where the Temple is located) in v. 2. By comparison, “the great city” is marked by its “wide (street)s” and wickedness (“Sodom”). It is best to see it as a figure for the wider world—i.e. the “nations”, or, the Roman Empire, according to the (historical) setting of the book. By contrast, believers (the people of God, collectively) are represented by the “holy city” and the Temple-complex (cf. on vv. 1-2 in the previous note). The 3½ years (1,260 days) is also a figurative period, drawn from Old Testament tradition, and represents the coming time of distress (and persecution). During this period, believers are to serve as witness of Jesus to the world (the “great city”); many, like Jesus himself, will be put to death as a result. This is the main association in verse 8, identifying the “great city” as the place “where our Lord was put to the stake”.

The death of the witnesses—that is, the time they remain dead—parallels the period of ministry (3½ days | 3½ years). The people of the “great city” rejoice and celebrate (evoking the Roman Saturnalia festival), even as the body of the witness(es) lies dead and unburied in the street (vv. 9-10). The cruelty and wickedness of humankind could not be more simply and vividly expressed. It is possible that the public spectacle-executions of Christians under Nero is in mind here, serving as a pattern for many other early Christian Martyrdom narratives. The period of 3½ days also serves to bring out more strongly the parallel with the death of Jesus (i.e. the traditional motif of three days); like Jesus, after three days, the two witnesses are raised from the dead (v. 11). The parallel is extended, as the witnesses ascend to heaven (v. 12) in a cloud, just like Jesus (Acts 1:9-11). Their enemies look on as they go up in the cloud, even as the nations will watch as Jesus (the Son of Man) returns in a cloud at the end-time (Rev 1:7)

The vision concludes with judgment striking the people of the “great city”, by way of a “great shaking [i.e. earthquake]”. An earthquake is also tied to Jesus’ death (and resurrection) in Matthew’s version of the Passion narrative (27:51; 28:2). Here, however, the more immediate connection is with the six Trumpet-visions in chapter 9, especially the first four, in which various natural disasters and phenomena destroy/afflict a portion (one-third) of the world. In this vision, the earthquake destroys a tenth of the city, killing seven thousand people (v. 13). It is interesting to note the smaller percentage involved, compared with that in the Trumpet-visions. Almost certainly, this reflects the ministry/witness of the two figures, culminating in their death and resurrection/exaltation. That this is meant to blend together features marking both Jesus and his faithful/true followers (believers), was noted above, and must be maintained as a fundamental aspect of any proper interpretation. This work of witness ultimately has a profoundly positive effect for humankind—limiting the extent of the Judgment, and leading people to repentance and the worship of God. This shift from judgment to worship also characterizes the seventh Trumpet vision, which follows in vv. 15-19 (to be discussed in the next daily note). The closing words of v. 14 effectively enclose the visions of chapters 10-11 back within the structure of seven-vision cycle, repeating the refrain from 9:12 (following the fifth vision):

“The second woe (has) come along—see! the third woe comes quickly!” (v. 14)

This third woe refers to the seventh (final) Trumpet vision, and yet, interestingly, no “woe”, as such, is described in vv. 15-19. It functions, rather, as a literary device, here primarily indicating the end, or completion, of the Judgment visions. With chapter 12, an entirely new mode of visionary expression is introduced, one which restates the Judgment narrative along more traditional-historical lines. Before embarking on that interesting study, it is necessary to examine the final Trumpet vision, which we will do in the next daily note.

Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

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

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16

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

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

Here is how he makes the comparison in verse 14:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding observation:

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

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

September 27: Revelation 6:9-11

Revelation 6:9-17

The visions from the first four seals (cf. the previous note)—the horses and their riders—deal with the theme of warfare among the peoples on earth, along with the suffering and death that results from it. The fourth rider was actually identified as “Death”, bringing people down to the grave (the “unseen realm” [a%|dh$] of the dead). Death from the sword (i.e. war) was widened to include death from hunger, disease, and attacks by wild animals (verse 8). Now in the vision from the fifth seal, the death-motif is extended to include believers in Christ who are put to death for their faith.

Rev 6:9-11

“And when he opened up the fifth seal, I saw down below the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] the souls having been [i.e. that had been] slaughtered through [i.e. because of] the account of God and the witness which they held.” (v. 9)

Here the slaughter from the nations at war is replaced by the slaughter of believers in Christ—specifically, those put to death as a result of proclaiming the Gospel (“the account/word [lo/go$] of God”), and acting as witnesses of Christ. This represents one of the earliest instances of the word martu/$ (“witness”, here the related noun marturi/a) in the technical Christian sense of one who is put to death for his/her faith in Jesus (the word[s] being transliterated in English as “martyr”, “martyrdom”, etc). It is described in terms of ritual slaughter—i.e., a sacrificial offering, just as Jesus’ own death was understood as a sacrifice (Passover, sin/guilt offering, or the sacrifice establishing the [new] Covenant). The altar-image seems to draw upon aspects of both altars in the Tabernacle/Temple design—(a) the altar of burnt offering in the sanctuary courtyard, and (b) the altar of incense in the shrine. The allusions for these two aspects are:

    • The position of the souls down at the bottom of the altar (v. 9)—In the ancient sacrificial ritual, blood from the slaughtered animal was poured/thrown down at the base of the altar (Lev 4:7, etc). The souls of the believers put to death are closely connected to this image of blood—since blood was typically understood as representing the life-essence of the person (much like the soul). Moreover “blood” can be synonymous with “death”, regardless of the extent to which a person’s death involved actual bloodshed; violent and/or wicked action leading to death of the innocent could be described simply as “bloodshed”.
    • The cry (i.e. prayer) of these souls (v. 10)—The connection between prayer and incense was traditional, and was established earlier here in 5:8.

The position of the souls (“down below the altar”) may also express the idea of taking refuge (with God) in the holy place. A temple sanctuary often served as a place of refuge or asylum—near the altar, in particular (1 Kings 1:50). For a similar image of souls (of the righteous) waiting in the heavenly sanctuary, cf. 2 Baruch 30:1-2; 2/4 Esdras 4:35; 7:32 (Koester, p. 399).

The cry of “how long…?” (Grk e%w$ po/te, “until when…?”) in verse 10 reflects passages in the Old Testament such as the Psalmist’s lament in Ps 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5ff (cf. also Zech 1:12, etc). It expresses two underlying thoughts: (1) the idea that justice has been denied or was not established during one’s life on earth, and (2) a desire to experience God’s deliverance in time of trouble. Here the emphasis is decidedly eschatological—i.e., waiting for justice to be done (by God) at the end-time Judgment:

“And they cried (out) with a loud voice, saying: ‘Until when, O master, the (One) holy and true, do you not judge and work out justice (for) our blood out of [i.e. from] the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth?'” (v. 10)

The verb e)kdike/w is sometimes translated “avenge”, but it is better here to maintain its fundamental meaning “work out justice” (i.e. on behalf of someone). Justice was not “worked out” for these believers during their time on earth, when they were put to death unjustly; it waits to be established at the end-time Judgment. A basic premise of justice in such instances (murder, bloodshed, etc) is a requital for the death (“blood”) of the innocent. This idea is most ancient, expressed famously in Gen 9:5-6, but was given a new formulation by Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Matt 23:29-35 / Lk 11:47-51)—the blood of the prophets put to death (by Israel) serves as a pattern for the execution of Jesus and his followers (cf. Matt 5:12; 11:12-14 par; Mark 9:12-13 par), and will bring judgment upon the people and the city of Jerusalem (Matt 23:36-39; Lk 13:33-35).

This introduces another interesting parallel between Revelation 6 and the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In both passages, a period of war among the nations/peoples (Rev 6:1-8; Mk 13:7-8 par) is followed by a reference to the persecution (and death) of believers (Rev 6:9ff; Mk 13:9-13 par). Also in both instances, the reference ends with a call for patient endurance (Rev 6:11; Mk 13:13 par). Here in verse 11, it is a response to the heartfelt cry of believers, longing to see justice done by God:

“And white dress was given to each of them, and it was uttered to them that they will rest up (for) a little time yet, until their (fellow) slaves with (them) and their brothers should also be fulfilled—the (one)s about to be killed off, even as they (were).”

On the significance of white garments, cf. the notes on 3:4-5, 18; 4:4, and further in 7:13-14. It is declared that justice will not be done—that is, the end-time Judgment will not come—until a “little time” (xro/no$ mikro/$) has passed. Based on 11:2-3; 12:6ff; 13:5, it is possible that this is equivalent to the (symbolic) period of 3½ years. In any case, based on the imminent eschatology clearly expressed in the book up to this point (cf. 1:1, 3, 8, 19; 2:16; 3:3, 10-11, 20), this declaration indicates that the end-time Judgment will take place very soon (though not immediately). This is confirmed by the announcement that the other believers, who will join them as martyrs for Christ, are “about [me/llonte$] to be killed”. This time, however short, or whatever the precise length, will be fulfilled when these other believers are put to death, completing their life-mission. On similar (and roughly contemporary) language, see, e.g., 1 Enoch 47:4; 2 Baruch 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 2:41; 4:35-37 (Koester, p. 400).

Clearly, the book of Revelation expresses the idea that the persecution (and execution) of believers is about to intensify and increase. While individual instances are mentioned, or alluded to, elsewhere in the New Testament, there is no real indication in the first century A.D. of widespread persecution. The opposition and attacks of early believers by Jews was most intense in the earliest years, but it was still experienced by Christians in Asia Minor toward the end of the century (as attested in 2:9-10 and 3:9). In terms of action against believers by Roman imperial authorities, this appears to have been sporadic and relatively infrequent. There were, of course, the famous (though very brief) state-sponsored executions under Nero’s reign (c. 64), which almost certainly influenced the imagery in the book of Revelation. However, the extent of persecution in the reign of Domitian (81-96), the period often thought to provide the setting of the book, does not appear to have been nearly so widespread as was often thought. Indeed, the evidence from the letters to the churches here in chaps. 2-3, suggests that executions were relatively infrequent in Asia Minor at the time of writing; imprisonment during interrogation would have been much more common. In the subsequent centuries (mid-2nd through the early 4th) there would be more intense periods of state-sponsored persecution, conducted on a wider scale.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 2)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this study, I surveyed the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse as represented by Mark 13. According to the common hypothesis, held by many critical scholars, the Gospel of Mark was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke. Whatever the precise relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, it is clear that they draw upon a common line of tradition, in which the same material occurs in the same sequence and setting. This is certainly true of the Eschatological Discourse. It is part of the common Synoptic narrative, derived either from Mark, or from a Gospel framework with a similar outline and set of contents. In discussing the Matthean version of the Discourse, I will be focusing almost entirely on the elements or features which are distinct or different from the Markan version. These may be viewed either as Matthean additions and modifications, or in terms of a particular (literary) arrangement and emphasis which the writer has given to the material.

Matthew 24

Matt 24:1-3—Introduction

Matthew’s version follows Mark quite closely, as can be seen already in the introduction (vv. 1-3; comp. Mk 13:1-4). Matthew’s account differs here in two respects: (1) it has a simpler narrative, with less local color/detail, and (2) it evinces a more distinctly Christian perspective. On the first point, one simply notes the omission of the disciples’ words in Mk 13:1 commenting on the great stones and buildings of the Temple complex, as also the fact that the disciples who subsequently approach Jesus (v. 3) are left unnamed (in Mk 13:3 they are identified as Peter, James, John, and Andrew). The second point touches upon the most significant difference in these verses—the form of the question posed by the disciples to Jesus. Compare the question in Mark and Matthew, respectively:

    • “Say to us [i.e. tell us], when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed (all) together [suntelei=sqai]?” (Mk 13:4)
    • “Say to us [i.e. tell us], when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] and (of) the completion together [sunte/leia] of th(is) Age?” (Matt 24:3b)

The first part is virtually identical, but the second portion differs considerably. In Mark the question refers, somewhat ambiguously, to “all these things”—in the present literary context, this must refer primarily to the time-frame of the Temple’s impending destruction; however, we may infer that other teaching regarding the end-time, especially the coming Judgment, may also be involved. The disciples ask for a sign (shmei=on) so they may known when these things will occur. The verb suntele/w, literally refers to “all these things” being completed together; an eschatological context is implied (i.e. the end of the current Age). Matthew’s version makes this context much more specific: “…the completion (all) together of th(is) Age“. The noun sunte/leia is related to the verb suntele/w, but functions as a distinct technical term (Dan [LXX] 8:17, 19; 11:27, 35, 40; 12:4, 6-7, 9; Matt 28:20; Heb 9:26; cf. also Testament of Zebulun 9:9; Benjamin 10:3, etc). More problematic is the way that this eschatological context is tied to the (early Christian) idea of Jesus’ future return, using the technical term parousi/a (parousia, “[com]ing to be alongside”). The actual disciples of Jesus, at this point, prior to his death and resurrection, would have had little or no sense of his future return. At best, they may have begun to connect his statements regarding the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man” with Jesus’ use of that expression as a self-designation. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, it is hard to see the disciples formulating the question this way. The Markan version is more realistic; Matthew here likely reflects a Christian gloss, or explanation, of the disciples’ words.

Matt 24:4-8—The sign(s) of what is to come

In Mark 13:5-8, Jesus gives an answer to the second question by the disciples (“what is the sign…?”), outlining several things which will occur before the coming of the end: (a) people coming falsely in Jesus’ name, (b) a period of warfare among the nations, and (c) shakings/earthquakes in various places. Matthew’s version is nearly identical in this description, with a number of small, but significant differences. Two may be noted:

i. In Mark 13:6 Jesus warns his disciples: “Many (people) will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)’…”. This indicates that there will be persons who claim to speak for Jesus (prophetically), or, perhaps, claim to be Jesus himself. At the same time, later in the Discourse (vv. 21-22), Jesus warns of the coming of false Messiahs—lit. “false Anointed (One)s”, in Greek yeudo/xristoi (i.e. false Christs). Matthew’s version brings this association into the earlier saying as well:

“For many (people) will come upon my name, saying ‘I am the Anointed (One)'” (v. 5)

This appears to reflect a degree of confusion in the Gospel Tradition—a confusion which clears itself up instantly when we realize that, for early Christians, claiming to be the Messiah and claiming to be Jesus were effectively the same thing. From the standpoint of the historical Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, however, this simple identification is problematic. A warning against people claiming to be the Messiah is more realistic in a first-century eschatological setting; in this regard, Matthew’s version is perhaps closer to Jesus’ original intent.

ii. In Mark 13:7, Jesus says: “But when you hear of wars…”; Matthew (v. 6) phrases this a bit differently:

“And you are about to hear of wars…”

This has two subtle effects: (a) it enhances the passage as a prophetic declaration by Jesus, and (b) it distances the coming period of warfare from the present moment. This is perhaps significant in relation to Jesus’ statement in v. 6b (= Mk 13:7b) that “…the completion [te/lo$] is not yet (here)”.

Matt 24:9-14—The persecution (of the disciples) which is to come

Here Matthew’s version, while following the same outline as Mark, differs more substantially in the way the material is presented, as well as in the points of emphasis reflected in Jesus’ words. To begin with, the prediction in Mk 13:9 refers to the disciples being brought before the Jewish council(s), as well as the courts/tribunals of rulers (in the wider Greco-Roman world), enduring beatings and mistreatment during the process of interrogation. In Matthew, by contrast, the prediction is more general and harsher in nature:

“Then they will give you along into distress and will kill you off, and you will be (one)s being [i.e. who are] hated under [i.e. by] all (people) through [i.e. because of] my name.” (v. 9)

Another difference is that the statement in Mk 13:10 occurs in Matthew at the end of the section (v. 14, cf. below). It may be helpful to compare the Markan and Matthean versions, in outline (marked by letters to aid in comparison):

    • Mark 13:9-13:
      • [A] Interrogation and mistreatment of the disciples before ruling authorities (v. 9)
      • [B] Statement on the proclamation of the good message into all the nations (v. 10)
      • [C] Promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples when they speak (v. 11)
      • [D] Hostility and division within families (over the Gospel), leading to persecution and death (v. 12)
      • [E] Promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved (v. 13)
    • Matt 24:9-14:
      • [A*] Mistreatment of the disciples[, including being put to death; hatred by all people] (v. 9)
      • [**] Lack of faith and betrayal (i.e. abandoning the true/Christian faith) by many (v. 10)
      • [**] Rise of false prophets (v. 11, cf. v. 24)
      • [**] Increase in lawlessness and lack of love (v. 12)
      • [E] Promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved (v. 13)
      • [B*] Statement on the proclamation of the good message to all the nations (v. 14)
        Note: asterisks indicate sayings or details in Matthew not found in Mark

Matthew’s version thus differs from the Markan in three respects:

    • The suffering/persecution faced by the disciples (or believers) is made more general
    • The statements regarding the work of the Spirit and division within families (Mk 13:11-12) are replaced by a trio of statements describing the overall decline of both the (early Christian) Community and society in general; however, note the similar promise regarding the role of the Spirit in 10:9-10 (par Lk 12:11-12).
    • The statement on the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations occurs at the end of the section

Overall, in Matthew’s version, this section paints a more negative portrait of both the condition of the world (i.e. human society) and the difficulties faced by the disciples (believers) in this environment. On the one hand, the emphasis on a period of missionary work by the disciples, central to the Markan version of this section, is not present in Matthew’s version. At the same time, what remains of this mission (proclamation of the good message) is given a more robust formulation in the saying corresponding to Mk 13:10:

    • “And it is necessary first to proclaim the good message into all the nations.”
    • Matt 24:14:
      “And this good message of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole inhabited (world) unto a witness for all the nations—and then the completion [te/lo$] will come/arrive!”

The context and significance of these two statements are dramatically different. In Mark, the Jesus’ words simply indicate that the disciples will not face the persecution mentioned in 13:9 until they first begin to proclaim the good message. In Matthew, it becomes a sign of what must first happen before the end comes! This Matthean formulation, while authentic enough in comparison with, e.g., Lk 24:47-49; Acts 1:8; Matt 28:19-20, appears out of place at this point in the Eschatological Discourse, when judged from an historical-critical standpoint. The Markan version is much more realistic within the overall context of this material. Again, Matt 24:14 may well be an early Christian gloss, reflecting (accurately) the belief that a period of extensive missionary work would have to occur before the end comes. This will be discussed further in Parts 3 and 4, as well as in the study on the eschatology in the book of Acts.

Matt 24:15-28—The period of great distress before the end

This section corresponds to Mark 13:14-23, and follows it relatively closely in outline and in much of the wording. However, Matthew has an expanded, developed form of this material, primarily in verses 26-28 which appear to have been added/appended to the Synoptic section (represented by Mark); their secondary character is confirmed by the fact that Luke has the same sayings as vv. 27-28, but in an entirely different location (17:24, 37). This does not mean that the sayings are inauthentic; on the contrary, it confirms that the Discourse itself is most likely a traditional/literary arrangement of (authentic) material on eschatological themes. Matthew simply has a more extensive arrangement at this point.

This first significant point of difference is in the allusion to Dan 9:27 in Mark 13:14, which Matthew (v. 15) makes specific and turns into a direct citation; compare (differences in italics):

    • But when you should see the stinking thing [bde/lugma] of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not—the one knowing this again (through reading) must put his mind (to it)—then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Mk 13:14)
    • Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place—the one knowing this again (through reading) must put his mind (to it)—then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Matt 24:15-16)

If the saying of Jesus in Mark is authentic (in that precise wording), then most likely Matthew has modified it to give clarity for his readers, making clear that: (a) the expression “the stinking thing of desolation” comes from Daniel (9:27), and (b) that the phrase “having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not” refers to a location in the Temple (“holy place”), that is, in the sanctuary, as indicated in Daniel. I have discussed Dan 9:24-27 in its original context in an earlier detailed study. Most commentators accept that v. 27 refers primarily to the desecration of the Temple by the Syrian/Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, with a corresponding disruption of the Temple ritual, 167-164 B.C. According to 1 Maccabees 1:54, this involved a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple, a pattern which was to be repeated by the emperor Gaius (Caligula). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

It is not clear what the editorial aside (in English idiom, something like “let the reader understand”) means specifically. The author who inserted it (whether the [Markan] Gospel writer or an earlier source) must have assumed his audience would have understood the context and significance of Jesus’ saying, and is thus referring to an early interpretation, perhaps tying it to the present circumstances related to Roman rule over Jerusalem. That is certainly how it is interpreted in the Lukan version (to be discussed in Part 3), where it is connected with the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, fulfilled in 70 A.D. Matthew’s version, however, does not take that step, but follows the Synoptic/Markan form of the section closely. Whatever is to take place in the Temple, it marks the beginning of the brief but intense period of “great distress” for Judea described in vv. 17ff (par Mk 13:15-22). The summary statement utilizing the expression (“great distress”) is a citation/allusion from Dan 12:1; in Mark (13:19) it reads:

“For (in) those days there will be distress [qli/yi$], (and) of such (kind) as this (there) has not come to be, from the beginning of (the world’s) formation which God formed, until now, and (surely) will not (ever) come to be (again)!”

Matthew has a slightly different formulation, simpler and more pointed:

“For then there will be great distress, such as has not come to be, from the beginning of the world-order [ko/smo$] until now, and (so) will not (ever) come to be (again)!” (Matt 24:21)

The expression “great distress” suggests a development in the tradition (cf. Rev 7:14), echoed by the expanded version of the remainder of the section in Matthew, with the addition of the sayings in vv. 26-28. The effect of this expansion to enhance the role of believers (the elect) during this period. In Mark, the structure of the section may be outlined:

    • Allusion to Dan 9:27, marking the time of distress (13:14a)
    • Warnings and instruction regarding the severity of the coming distress, in traditional language and imagery (vv. 14b-18)
    • Statement on the time of distress (v. 19)
    • The Elect in the time of distress (vv. 20-22)
      —It will be cut short through the (presence/activity of the) Elect (v. 20)
      —False claims that the Messiah has appeared or is in a particular location (v. 21)
      —The appearance of miracle-working false Messiahs/prophets who might deceive the Elect (v. 22)
    • Final exhortation (v. 23)

Here is the portion corresponding to vv. 20-23 in Matthew:

    • The Elect in the time of distress (24:22-28)
      • Duration: It will be cut short through the (presence/activity of the) Elect (v. 22)
      • Character of it: A time of testing for the Elect—False signs and testimony:
        —Claims that the Messiah has appeared (v. 23)
        —Appearance of miracle-working false Messiahs/prophets (v. 24)
        —Importance of this: Jesus is warning them ahead of time (v. 25)
        —Claims that the Messiah has appeared in various locations, outdoor and inside (v. 26)
        —The true Messiah (Son of Man) will appear suddenly, in a manner visible and unmistakable to everyone (v. 27)
        —Proverb: The false prophets are like vultures circling around, taking advantage of the time of distress (v. 28)

The closing exhortation in Mark 13:23 thus serves a different purpose in Matthew: instead of being an assurance by Jesus to his disciples that they will be able to recognize the signs and events of the end-time when they come, it specifically relates to the appearance of false Messiahs and false prophets. This takes on much greater importance in Matthew’s version, and the three added sayings enhance and reinforce the message:

    • 26—Repeated warning regarding claims that the Messiah has appeared
    • 27—Contrast with the actual appearance of the true Messiah (Son of Man), that it will be clear and unmistakable to everyone
    • 28—Closing illustration: The false Messiahs/prophets are like vultures circling around a dead body, taking advantage of people in the time of distress

This is an altogether different sort of eschatological setting for the material than in the Gospel of Luke (17:23-24, 37); the way these sayings were adapted and included by each Gospel writer will be discussed in Part 3 on the Lukan version of the Discourse.

Matt 24:29-31—The appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time

In the outline of the Discourse, the section describing the time of distress is followed by a description of the Son of Man’s appearance, which contains three pieces:

    • Supernatural celestial phenomena—combination of Scripture allusions, drawing upon the language/imagery of theophany (manifestation of God) [Mk 13:24-25]
    • The appearance of the Son of Man (allusion to Dan 7:13) [Mk 13:26]
    • The gathering of the Elect by the Angels [Mk 13:27]

Matthew follows Mark closely here; the only real difference is in the actual description of the Son of Man’s appearance (Matt 24:30 / Mk 13:26), where the Markan saying is preceded by two additional statements (in italics), each beginning “and then…” (kai\ to/te):

And then the sign of the Son of Man will shine forth in heaven, and then all the offshoots [i.e. tribes/races] of the earth will beat (themselves), and they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with much power and splendor.”

Let us consider each of these additions:

    • “the sign of the Son of Man will shine forth in (the) heaven”—On the one hand, this serves to distinguish the Son of Man’s actual appearance from the celestial phenomena which preceded it. These were signs that he (a divine/heavenly being who represents God himself) was about to appear, but now his presence, as he comes down from heaven, is marked by a special sign in the sky. At the same time, the context here suggests that the sign (shmei=on) is to be understood as the cross—symbol of the Son of Man’s (Jesus’) suffering and death.
    • “all the offshoots of the earth will beat (themselves)”—If there is a sign in the heaven of Jesus’ suffering and death, so there is also a corresponding sign on earth, which follows in response. The earth’s “offshoots” (i.e. the tribes and races of people) beat themselves in an act of collective mourning. This is an allusion to Zech 12:10, interpreted in light of Jesus’ death (cf. John 19:37). Revelation 1:7 also combines Dan 7:13 with Zech 12:10 in a similar eschatological context, referring to the exalted Jesus’ visible return to earth at the end time.

Both of these additions make more specific what would otherwise have to be inferred by early Christians in this, as in all the other, eschatological Son of Man sayings (cf. the earlier study)—that the Son of Man’s appearance is to be equated with Jesus’ future return. This is confirmed by the way that the Son of Man is specifically identified here with Jesus in his exalted state (in Heaven), following his death and resurrection. Again, it is easier to view these statements as explanatory additions by the Gospel writer, and that Mark (13:26) more closely approximates the original saying of Jesus.

Matt 24:32-25—Sayings and illustrations on when the end will occur

Matthew follows Mark in this section very closely, almost verbatim. One small, but possibly significant difference is in the application of the fig-tree parable. Mark (13:29) reads: “So also you, when you see these (thing)s coming to be [gino/mena]…” Matthew (24:33) does not include the participle “coming to be”, stating more flatly, “…when you see these (thing)s”. It is possible that this is intended to avoid the implication that all these things will, indeed, come to pass for the disciples, i.e. in their own lifetime. If so, then it might give a slightly different sense to the famous statement that follows in verse 34 (par Mk 13:30), distancing “this generation” from the current generation whom Jesus is addressing. This is possible, though rather unlikely, and is, in any case, untenable as the original meaning intended by Jesus. I discuss this difficult saying in a separate study on “Imminent Eschatology” in the Gospels.

Matt 24:36-44—Concluding exhortation and illustration(s)

This corresponding section in Mark (13:32-37) brings the Discourse to a conclusion; it has a relatively simple structure:

    • Declaration that no one knows the exact time (day and hour) of the end, though it is coming soon (v. 32)
    • Exhortation to stay awake/alert (vv. 33-37)
      • Initial warning/exhortation (v. 33)
      • Illustration of the Master who goes away (v. 34)
      • Application for disciples/believers (vv. 35-36)
      • Final exhortation (v. 37)

This has been modified/expanded significantly in Matthew’s version (24:36-44ff):

    • Declaration on knowing the day and hour (v. 36, nearly identical to Mark)
    • Illustrations on the sudden/unexpected coming of the Judgment (vv. 37-41)
    • Illustration on the coming of the Lord / Son of Man (vv. 42-44)
    • Illustration of the Faithful Servant (vv. 45-51)

Verses 42-44 generally correspond to Mk 13:33-37, but in simpler form and with a distinctive emphasis, which specifically interprets the core illustration in terms of the end-time coming of the Son of Man and the return of Jesus. The bracketing exhortations in vv. 42 and 44 make this abundantly clear (note the italicized words):

    • “(So) then, you must keep awake/alert, (in) that you do have not seen on what day your Lord comes!” (v. 42)
    • “Through this you must come to be (made) ready, (in) that (it is) in an hour which you do not consider (that) the Son of Man comes.” (v. 44)

The first statement could be understood in the traditional sense of the coming of God (YHWH, the Lord) at the end time (i.e. the day of YHWH); but, when paired with the similar saying involving the “Son of Man” (i.e. Jesus) in an early Christian context, it can only refer to the end-time return of Jesus. Again, Matthew makes specific what would otherwise have to be inferred in Mark’s version.

Matthew also includes significant additional material, in verses 37-41 and 45-51. The sayings in vv. 37-41 are part of the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. Luke has these sayings in a different location (Lk 17:26-27, 34-35), in a separate section of eschatological instruction (17:20-37). They will be discussed in more detail in Part 3 on the Lukan version of the Discourse. In the Matthean context, the sayings build upon the statement in verse 36 about knowing the day and hour; they are traditional (and proverbial) illustrations to the point that the end-time Judgment will come upon people unexpectedly—most of the population will be overcome and destroyed, while only the faithful ones will be saved. The detail of the illustration in vv. 40-41 is not entirely certain; there are two figure-types—one who is “taken along” and the other who is “released” or “left”. It clearly is meant to distinguish between those saved from the Judgment and those destroyed by it, but uncertainty remains among commentators as to which figure-type represents which category; there are two possibilities (I tend to prefer the latter):

    • “taken along”, i.e. into the ark (salvation); “left” (behind) to face the Judgment
    • “taken along”, i.e. by the flood (destruction); “left” (behind) to survive the Judgment
Matt 24:45-51—An additional (transitional) parable

The parable in vv. 45-51 is unique to Matthew here, and is not part of the Markan/Synoptic Discourse, though it corresponds to the pattern of a number of Jesus’ parables. It features the familiar idea of a Master who goes away, leaving his land/estate in the care of servants. The primary purpose of this parable type is as a vehicle for ethical instruction—i.e., whether the servant will be faithful diligent while the Master is away. The juxtaposition of the two servant types—one faithful, the other lazy/wicked—was a natural fit for the eschatological aspect of such parables. The end-time Judgment would separate the righteous from the wicked, a motif present in most of the eschatological parables, especially the Matthean parables of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43) and the Fish-net (13:47-50), as well as those which follow here in chapter 25 (cf. below). If the illustrations in vv. 37-41 build upon the saying in v. 36, the parable in vv. 45-51 builds upon the sayings/illustration of vv. 42-44, demonstrating the importance (and ultimate consequence) of believers acting and behaving faithfully which the Master (Jesus) is away.

Nearly all of the distinctive elements and characteristics of Matthew’s version of the Discourse seem to point in the direction of an early Christian interpretation of Jesus’ (original) sayings, as, for example, in identifying the “Son of Man” more precisely with Jesus himself (and his end-time/future return). At every point, Mark appears to have the more ‘primitive’ version of the material, closer to the context and setting of the authentic sayings. The inclusion of sayings, which Luke preserves in an entirely different location, as part of the Discourse, confirms a level of (secondary) development in Matthew’s version. This must not be misunderstood—it reflects an interpretive layer in addition to the Synoptic material which otherwise more closely reflects the authentic historical tradition. It does not, by any reasonable standard, contradict or invalidate the historicity of the tradition.

On Chapter 25

The expanded nature of Matthew’s version of the Discourse is made even more clear when one considers the place of the three parables in chapter 25. These were discussed already in the earlier study on the eschatological Parables. As I did in that study, those three parables are often treated separately from the Eschatological Discourse; however, the Gospel writer, by all accounts, regards them (and presents them) as part of the Discourse. There is no indication of any break in the narrative between chapters 24 and 25, indicating that, on the narrative and literary level, they represent a single Sermon-Discourse, much as chapters 5-7 are presented as a single “Sermon”. The parable in 24:45-51 is transitional to the three great parables in chapter 25. They all deal with the contrast between faithful and negligent servants, true and false disciples, in the (eschatological) framework of the coming end-time Judgment. The first two parables follow the pattern of the Master who has gone away and is about to return, just as in the illustrations which close the Discourse proper in chap. 24 (cf. above). When viewed in this light, taking chapters 24 and 25 together, it shows just how far, and to what extent, the Synoptic Discourse was adapted in the Gospel of Matthew. Only in Matthew’s version is the end-time Judgment and appearance of the Son of Man completed with a vision of the final Judgment taking place in the heavenly court (25:31-46), ending with the clearest possible description of the fate of the righteous and wicked respectively. In this regard, Matthew’s version of the Discourse is closer to the scope and vision of the book of Revelation, which moves between predictions (visions) of the end-time Judgment, and scenes set in Heaven before the throne of God (cf. the current series of daily notes on Revelation). Moreover, it is in Matthew’s version that the exalted position of Jesus (as Son of Man) is given greatest emphasis.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

The most extensive eschatological teaching by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is found in the so-called “Eschatological Discourse” in Mark 13 (par Matthew 24 & Luke 21:5-36). Within the Synoptic framework, it is presented as a sermon or discourse by Jesus; however, many scholars feel that this arrangement is literary (and traditional) rather than historical. That is to say, it represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus which may have originally been uttered on separate occasions. This view would seem to be confirmed by the evidence from Matthew and Luke, where eschatological sayings recorded in other locations (in Luke) are incorporated as part of the “discourse” (in Matthew). It is useful, however, to begin with the Gospel of Mark, as representing the core Synoptic Tradition. The distinctive features and elements of the Matthean and Lukan versions will be examined in Parts 2 and 3 of this study, respectively.

Mark 13

An outline of the Markan version of the Eschatological Discourse gives some indication, I think, of how different sayings or traditions might have been combined. This is not to say that Jesus might not have given a longer discourse, dealing with eschatological matters, which resembles the Synoptic Discourse; but the thematic arrangement of the sayings and parables of Jesus is, on the whole, better viewed as a result of the early collection and transmission of the material. On this basis alone, however, there is no (objective) reason to doubt the authenticity of any of the sayings. Here is an outline of the Markan Discourse:

    • Vv. 1-2—Narrative introduction, including:
      • Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple (v. 2)
    • Vv. 3-4—Introduction to the Discourse: Question by the disciples
    • Vv. 5-8—”Birth Pains”: Things which will occur before the end
      —Appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (v. 6)
      —Wars among the nations (vv. 7-8a)
      —Natural disasters and famine (v. 8b)
    • Vv. 9-13—Persecution of the Disciples which will occur before the end, reflecting missionary work among both Jews and Gentiles
    • Vv. 14-23—Sayings regarding the affliction which will come upon Judea
      —Saying concerning the “abomination of desolation” (v. 14)
      —Warning of the coming suffering (vv. 15-20)
      —Repeated reference to the appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (vv. 21-22)
      —Concluding exhortation (v. 23)
    • Vv. 24-27—The appearance of the Son of Man
    • Vv. 28-31—Sayings on the time when the end will come
      —Illustration of the fig-tree (vv. 28-29)
      —Two sayings with the verb pare/rxomai (vv. 30-31)
    • Vv. 32-37—Concluding Parable (and Sayings)
Mark 13:1-2

The narrative introduction provides the general setting for the discourse, in the vicinity of the Jerusalem Temple:

“And (at) his traveling out of the Sacred Place, one of his learners [i.e. disciples] says to him, ‘Teacher, (do you) see what sort of stones and what sort of buildings (these are)?'”

This expression of amazement reflects the grandeur of the Herodian Temple in Jesus’ day, which is described extensively by Josephus (Antiquities 15.380-425; Wars 5.184-227). The size and beauty of the building, and its great stones, would have been impressive indeed; Jesus, however, declares:

“(Are) you look(ing) at these great buildings? (Yet) there shall not be here (even one) stone left upon (another) stone which shall not be loosed down!” (v. 2)

This must be regarded as a prediction of the Temple’s destruction, which, of course, came to pass in 70 A.D. as a result of the Jewish revolt and Roman siege of Jerusalem. It is important as a general time-frame for the Eschatological Discourse. The Lukan version gives much greater emphasis to the Roman attack on the city.

For more on the eschatological aspects of the Temple—especially the Temple action and saying(s) by Jesus—cf. the supplemental article on this subject.

Mark 13:3-4

With these verses, the Discourse begins, though the introduction clearly continues from where the narrative introduction in vv. 1-2 leaves off—with its connection to the Temple (note the similar structure):

“And (at) his sitting (down near) unto the Mount of the Olive-trees, down opposite to the Sacred Place [i.e. Temple], on their own [i.e. privately]…they asked him…” (v. 3)

The introductory statement, as in verse 1, culminates with a question by the disciples—here the ones who ask are identified as Peter, James, John and Andrew. Their question must be understood, in context, in relation to Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction. It is actually a two-fold question which serves the (literary) purpose of joining Jesus’ Temple saying with the eschatological instruction which follows:

    • “when will these (thing)s be?”
    • “what (shall be) the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together?”

In Matthew’s version, the disciples’ second question is more precisely eschatological, framed in more obvious Christian terms: “what is the sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] and (of) the completion (all) together of th(is) Age?”. In Mark, however, the question is more general and ambiguous—to what “things” exactly are the disciples referring? Is it simply to the destruction of the Temple, or does it imply other eschatological teaching by Jesus? The literary context of the Discourse requires the latter, and points to the very teaching which follows in vv. 5ff.

Mark 13:5-8

Jesus’ initial response deals more with the disciples’ second question (“what shall be the sign…?”) rather than the first (“when…?”). He offers three such “signs”, which are summarily described as “the beginning of the (birth) pains” (v. 8); these are:

1. Persons claiming to be Jesus and/or speak in his name, causing many to go astray (vv. 5-6). Here is how this is stated in Mark’s version:

And Yeshua began to say to them, “You must look (carefully so that) someone should not lead you astray—(for) many will come upon my name saying that ‘I am (he)’, and will lead many astray.”

There is some confusion in the Gospel tradition here as to whether Jesus is speaking of people claiming to be him (i.e. Jesus) and speak for him, or whether they are claiming to be the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ). Early Christians would have treated these essentially as identical situations, but it is not so clear how this might have been framed by (the historical) Jesus to his followers. This will be discussed further when we examine the Matthean and Lukan versions, and when we come to verses 21-22 below.

2. A period of warfare among the nations (vv. 7-8a). Syntactically, the second and third signs should be discussed together; however, thematically, it is useful to keep them distinct:

“And when you should hear of wars and the hearings [i.e. rumors] of wars, you must not be frightened (by these things)—they need to come to be, but the completion (of them) is not yet (here). For nation will rise upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom…”

This would seem to refer to a period of relatively widespread warfare, involving a number of different nations and kingdoms. The book of Revelation describes something similar in the visions of the first four seals (i.e. the four horses and riders) in 6:2-8—they represent an intense period of war which has a devastating effect upon society. For those eager to place these verses in a more precise time-frame, it is virtually impossible to do so, as there have been many periods of widespread warfare from the first century A.D. down to the present time in the 21st century. Also, it may be claimed that Jesus is here referring to a mindset and outlook, reflecting human wickedness and violence, and its effects, as much as to any specific events.

3. Natural disaster and famine (v. 8b). This continues from the description of the period of warfare:

“…(and) there will be shakings [i.e. earthquakes] down in (many) places, (and) there will (also) be (time)s of hunger [i.e. famine]…

In the seal visions of Revelation, famine and food-shortage also follows the period of warfare among the nations (6:5-6, 8b), as well as “shakings” of the earth (vv. 12-13ff). Interestingly, there is no real indication that the book of Revelation is consciously following the Eschatological Discourse, even though both passages express the same basic message and traditional sequence. Jesus describes all of these signs in vv. 5-8 with the declaration that “these (are the) beginning of (the birth) pains” (a)rxh\ w)di/nwn tau=ta). Childbirth was frequently used as a metaphor for human suffering, either in the negative sense of pain (and possible death) or the positive sense of the joy which replaces the pain when the child is delivered. Of the many relevant passages in Scripture, cf. Gen 3:16-17; Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-19; 42:14; 66:7-8; Jer 4:31; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22ff; John 16:21; Gal 4:19. Several other passages in the New Testament use the motif of childbirth, and the pains associated with it, in an eschatological sense or context:

    • The suffering of Judea/Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Luke 23:28-31, which will be touched on briefly in the study on the Lukan version of the Eschatological discourse.
    • Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22: “we see that all creation groans together and is in pain together until now”.
    • The vision of the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12.

In fact, the eschatological motif is traditional; the time of suffering, marking the end of the current Age, came to be referred to as “the birth pains of the Messiah”.

Mark 13:9-13

Surely to be included among the “signs” of things which must occur before the end is the prediction of persecution and suffering of Jesus’ disciples, implying a period of missionary work which would extend outside the confines of Judea into the Gentile world. This idea was fundamental to New Testament eschatology at the time the Gospels were written (c. 60-80 A.D.), and especially so in the Gospel of Luke. It is less pronounced and developed in Mark, but it is still present (v. 10), as part of the Synoptic tradition. Verses 9-10 outline the missionary work and reflects the experience (narrated in the book of Acts) of a number of the disciples who were arrested and interrogated by government officials:

    • 9a: Among Jews (in Judea and beyond)—given over to the ruling bodies (“sitting together”, sune/drion, i.e. sanhedrin) & beaten in the places of gathering (“being brought together”, sunagwgh/, i.e. synagogue)
    • 9b: Into the wider world, which presumably include the Gentile kingdoms—made to stand before governors and kings, as a witness to them on behalf of Jesus

The period of early Christian mission is stated succinctly in verse 10:

“And first it is necessary to proclaim the good message into all the nations.”

It is easy to misunderstand the significance of this, as though it required an extensive worldwide mission (in the modern sense) before the end would come. Matthew’s version (24:14) does suggest something of the kind, but we must be cautious about reading that wording into Mark’s account. The use of the adverb prw=ton (“first”) here in Mark, I believe, is intended primarily to make clear what might seem obvious—before the disciples will experience these things, they must first begin to proclaim the Gospel (“good message”). It establishes the need for the early Christian mission, without any real indication of the time-period involved.

The persecution which Jesus’ disciples will experience is further summarized in three distinct sayings:

    • A promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples, giving them the ability to speak and offer a defense (v. 11)
    • Following Jesus will lead to violent splits within families (v. 12)
    • A declaration of the hatred believers will face from people, along with an exhortation to endure and remain faithful (v. 13)

This last saying involves an eschatological promise of salvation—i.e. the heavenly reward of (eternal) Life:

“But the one remaining under unto the completion, this (one) will be saved.”

We are accustomed to viewing this as a promise to all believers, and, indeed this is appropriate; however, if we consider it strictly in terms of the historical situation (i.e. the disciples whom Jesus was actually addressing at the time), it would tend to support the expectation that the end was to come within the lifetime of the first disciples.

It is interesting to note that the seal-visions in Revelation also include a reference to the persecution of believers (cf. the fifth seal, 6:9-11) in a roughly similar sequence.

Mark 13:14-23

Another intense period of suffering and distress is described in vv. 14-23, with certain similarities to what has gone before in the Discourse. This raises the question as to whether the three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23—are meant to describe sequential events or are different ways of describing the same general period (i.e. of events to occur before the end). Verses 9-13, referring to the persecution of believers, presumably is not meant to be taken as a period of time separate from the suffering in vv. 5-8 and 14-23. If these various sayings were originally uttered in different settings, this can no longer be reconstructed; we must work from the arrangement in the Discourse as it has come down to us. I suspect that vv. 5-13 are meant to be taken together as referring to the same ‘stage’, if you will; the exact relationship to vv. 14-23 is less certain. From a literary standpoint, the wording in verse 14 is transitional, creating a point of contrast with the promise of salvation in v. 13 (“But when you see…”). The exact setting or scenario described in this section is rather vague and allusive, at least in the Markan version of the Discourse. Several points can be determined with certainty:

    • It involves an allusion to Daniel 9:27 (v. 14)
    • It refers to something which will be localized in Judea
    • It involves suffering and trauma which will upset much, or all, of society (vv. 14b-19)
    • It will be an especially intense, though brief, period of suffering (v. 20)
    • In the midst of it, there will be false Messiahs and false prophets (vv. 21-22)

In Luke’s version (to be discussed), this is all presented in terms of a military invasion of Jerusalem. However, it is poor method simply to read this into Mark’s version, which otherwise makes no clear reference to such an invasion (apart, possibly, from the allusion to Dan 9:27). Even so, it must be said that nearly all of vv. 14-22 could well fit the setting of the war of 66-70 A.D. and the ultimate siege and destruction of Jerusalem, according to the historical accounts narrated by Josephus. This will be discussed in the concluding part of our study.

In my view, all of verses 5-22 describe a single, intense (and relatively brief?) period of suffering and distress which precedes the coming of the end. It is the same period, with three different points of focus:

    • The effect on the world (nations) and people in general (vv. 5-8)
    • The effect on the disciples (believers) (vv. 9-13)
    • The effect on Judea (and Jerusalem) (vv. 14-22)

Jesus’ concluding words in verse 23 are often overlooked, but they are important in the way that they clearly summarize and mark off the events preceding the end from the end itself: “And (now) you must look (closely): (for) I have spoke all (thing)s to you before(hand)”. The disciples now have all they need to recognize the signs that the end is about to come.

Mark 13:24-27

The description of the end itself begins in verse 24, as indicated clearly by the opening words:

“But in those days after that (time of) distress [qli=yi$]…”

The period covered by vv. 5-22 is called qli=yi$ (“crushing [force], pressure, [dis]tress”), the same word used, in a very similar sense, in Revelation 1:9 and 7:14. In translation, the word has taken on a life of its own in modern eschatology as “the Great Tribulation” (from the phrase in Rev 7:14). It is important, however, to stay rooted to the Greek text, and remain focused, for the moment, on the Eschatological Discourse here in Mark. Nothing more is said about this “distress”, only what comes after it—namely, the appearance of the Son of Man. This appearance is accompanied by an upheaval of the natural order of things in the universe, drawing upon the ancient/traditional language of theophany—i.e. the manifestation of God within creation. Nature itself can not withstand the appearance of God, falling and submitting before him; moreover, the forces of nature and the heavens are obedient to God and work as servants on His behalf. This sort of imagery is expressed numerous times in the Old Testament, especially in Prophets, where it begins to take on an eschatological coloring. The description in vv. 24-26 by Jesus is taken from passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7. The sixth seal-vision in Revelation 6:12-14ff describes similar cosmic phenomena, but without culminating in the appearance of the Son of Man. That moment is described here as follows:

“Then they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming in/on (the) clouds with much power and splendor.” (v. 27)

This is largely drawn from Daniel 7:13-14, but apparently with a difference in orientation—instead of the Son of Man coming toward God (v. 13), he comes to earth as God’s representative to judge humankind and deliver the faithful ones among God’s people (more closely related to v. 14). It is the latter aspect of deliverance which is emphasized by Jesus in verse 28:

“And then he will send forth the Messengers and they will bring together upon (one place) [his] (chosen one)s gathered out, (from) out of the four winds, from the (farthest) point of earth unto the (farthest) point of heaven.”

This is salvation in the proper New Testament sense—deliverance from sin and wickedness at the end-time and being saved from the final Judgment. Only in the later strands of the New Testament do we see a definite shift from final (eschatological) salvation to the experience of believers in the present (i.e. ‘realized’ eschatology).

For more on the influence of Daniel in the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the supplemental study on 7:13-14 and 9:27.

Mark 13:28-31

Here we encounter two of the more controversial pieces in the Eschatological Discourse: (a) the illustration of the fig tree (vv. 28-29) and (b) the saying on “this generation” in v. 30.

On the surface the parable/illustration of the fig tree is simple and straightforward, being similar in style to the mustard seed/tree parable (Mk 4:30-32 par). It also resembles the illustration on interpreting the ‘signs of the time’ in Luke 12:54-56 / Matt 16:1-3. As in a number of Jesus’ parables, it uses an easily understandable observation from farming and the natural world to describe some aspect of the Kingdom. Though not specifically indicated here as a Kingdom-parable, it may fairly be characterized as relating to the end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God. The comparison is clear enough:

    • When the branch is soft and puts out leaves, you can tell that summer is near (v. 28)
    • When the disciples see “these things [tau=ta]” coming to pass, they will know that “it is near” (v. 29)

In context, “these (thing)s” can only refer to the signs Jesus has spoken of in vv. 5-22—the things which are to take place before the end comes. Similarly, the generic statement “it is near…”, refers to the coming of the end—specifically, the coming of the Son of Man which ushers in the final Judgment. The exact phrase used is “it is near upon the gates”, which could be an allusion to the gates of the city (Jerusalem), though it need not be taken that concretely.

It has become popular in some circles to identify the fig tree as a particular symbol of Israel (the people or nation/state). This, however, is misplaced. The fig tree and vine together serve as symbols of blessing and fruitfulness, but in a general, proverbial sense; it can, of course, be applied to Israel as God’s people, but only in Hosea 9:10 is there anything like a direct connection (fig tree = Israel). The blossoming fig branch here refers not to Israel, but to the coming of the end and the appearance of the Son of Man.

In verses 30-31 we have two seemingly unrelated sayings; they are connected by common use of the verb pare/rxomai (“come/go along[side]”). This is an example of what commentators call “catchword-bonding”, and serves as evidence in support of the view that the Discourse is a collection of sayings, etc, which may originally have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Early Christians brought this material together, arranging it by theme (eschatology) or on the basis of common words and phrases. This would have begun to occur at the level of oral tradition, helping the earliest believers to remember and transmit the teachings of Jesus, and continued as the first collections were written down. It is possible that Jesus did utter both sayings together, and that the wordplay is his own, but given the many examples of “catchword-bonding” in the Gospel tradition, the critical view seems more likely. Here are the two sayings taken together:

    • “Amen, I relate to you that this (period of) coming to be [genea/] shall (certainly) not go along [pare/lqh|] until the (time at) which all these (thing)s shall come to be.” (v. 30)
    • “The heaven and the earth will go along [pareleu/sontai], but my words [lo/goi] will not (ever) go along [pareleu/sontai].” (v. 31)

The first saying uses the verb in connection with the noun genea/, which fundamentally refers to something coming to be (born) [vb. gi/nomai], often in the sense of (1) a group of people from a common line of birth, or (2) an age or period when people were born (and lived). In both cases, the English word “generation” (itself related to the Greek) is typically used to translate. Here, for the first time in the Discourse, Jesus addresses the initial question posed by the disciples in verse 4: “When will these (thing)s be?” As the saying in verse 30 makes clear, “these things” will take place before “this generation” goes away. A more precise interpretation of the time indicated here is difficult and has proven controversial, for a variety of reasons (and cf. verse 32 as a word of caution). It will be discussed in more detail in the article on “imminent eschatology” in the sayings of Jesus.

The second saying (v. 31), in context, serves to reinforce the reliability of Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming of the end. His words will last longer than heaven and earth themselves (i.e. the created order), remaining after the physical universe has disappeared. There may be an allusion to Scriptures such as Isa 40:8; 51:6; Psalm 119:89; cf. also Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:18.

Mark 13:32-37

The Discourse concludes with a short block of material that centers around a parable by Jesus, utilizing the familiar setting of the master who goes away and the servants who work in his absence. Jesus used this story framework repeatedly, including a number of other parables (discussed earlier in Parts 2 and 3 of the study on the Parables) which have an eschatological orientation. The parable itself occurs in verses 34-36; we may outline this section as follows:

    • Saying on the day and hour when the end will come (v. 32)
    • Exhortation for the disciples to watch and stay alert (v. 33)
    • Parable of the Returning Master (vv. 34-36)
    • Second Exhortation to stay alert (v. 37)

On the whole, the section continues Jesus’ answer of the disciples’ question “When will these things be?” Beyond the basic declaration that they will occur before “this generation” goes away, Jesus makes clear in verse 32 that the disciples cannot know the time with any more precision: “About that day or th(at) hour, no one has seen [i.e. no one knows]”. Commentators and students can be tripped up by reading too much theological (and Christological) significance in the the second half of the saying, which states that neither the (heavenly) Messengers nor the Son (of Man) know the time, but only God the Father. It makes for interesting speculation, but all Jesus is really saying is that the disciples cannot know the exact time—it is one of the “secrets of the Kingdom” (4:11) which has not been revealed to them. Indeed, the overriding message of this section, driven home by the parable and the double-exhortation to stay awake, is that “these things” could occur at any time:

“(So) then you must keep awake—for you have not seen [i.e. do not know] when the lord of the house comes…” (v. 35a)

The figure of the returning master, can be interpreted at several levels, based on one’s view of the development of the Gospel tradition:

    • A general reference to God’s appearance to bring the end-time Judgment
    • This divine visitation as taking place through the Son of Man as God’s appointed/anointed representative
    • The return of Jesus, who is identified as the Son of Man

By the time the Gospels were written, among early Christians the latter would certainly have been in view. For more on the background of the expression and title “Son of Man”, and the identification of Jesus with this heavenly/Messianic figure, cf. Part 10 of the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

September 15: Revelation 2:8-11

Revelation 2:8-11

Today’s note deals with the second of the letters in chapters 2-3—to the believers in Smyrna, “(city of) myrrh [smu/rna] (?)”, modern Izmir, one of the major cities in Roman Asia (approx. 40 miles N. of Ephesus). The epistolary format used in these letters was discussed in a previous note; here I will be discussing only those details which are distinctive of the second letter.

Rev 2:8b

“These (things are) said (by) the (one who is) the first and the last, who came to be dead and was (made) alive”

The introduction (to Jesus) in each letter includes titles and phrases characteristic of the risen/exalted Jesus, reflecting attributes of deity. They are drawn from the vision in 1:11-16ff—here the titles repeat the declaration in vv. 17b-18a (cf. the note on these).

Rev 2:9

The body of the main address (from the risen Jesus) here is found in vv. 9-10. Unlike most of the other letters, it is not a mixed message (praise and blame), but is entirely one of praise and exhortation. This seems to reflect a degree of persecution faced by the congregations in Smyrna, which was not faced, to the same extent, by believers in the other cities. This is presented dramatically by the first statement (in verse 9):

“I have seen your (di)stress and poverty—but you are (in fact) rich!—and the insult(s) [blasfhmi/a] (coming) out of the (one)s counting themselves to be Yehudeans [i.e. Jews], and (yet) are not, but (are actually) a gathering together [sunagwgh/] of the Satan.”

The suffering of the believers in Smyrna is due to two factors: (1) distress/pressure (qli/yi$), i.e. from outside forces, and (2) poverty (ptwxei/a). This latter term means that they are poor in a material (and/or socio-cultural) sense, while actually being rich (plou/sio$) in the eyes of God (i.e. in a spiritual sense). Both factors are relevant, since believers with a higher socio-economic status generally are less likely to endure suffering and persecution.

While the difficulties for the congregations in Ephesus are described as coming from ‘false’ Christians, the suffering in Smyrna is the result of attacks from the Jewish communities in the city. This, of course, is familiar from the accounts of Paul’s missionary work in the book of Acts (9:23-25; 13:45ff; 14:5, 19; 17:5-8, etc), and confirmed at several points in his letters (e.g., 1 Thess 2:14-16). For Christians today, especially those in the Western nations, the descriptions in the New Testament of Jewish/Christian hostility, with corresponding anti-Jewish statements, can be most troubling, in light of the long and tragic history of ‘Christian’ persecution against Jews. However, this should not cause us to ignore or gloss over the historical reality of another time and place. There were genuine conflicts between early Christians (many of whom were Jewish) and certain segments within Judaism.

Here the Jewish attacks are described as blasfhmi/a (“insult”), a word which often is used in a religious context (i.e. insult against God), as preserved in English by the transliterated form “blasphemy”. There can be no doubt that the religious connotation is intended here; any attack against believers in Christ is effectively an insult (i.e. blasphemy) against God. The grim irony is that Jews who attack believers, perhaps fueled by a sense of religious devotion, are actually committing “blasphemy” and insulting God Himself. We do not know the specific details related to this “insult”, but it may have involved the denouncing of Christians to the provincial (imperial) authorities, which could then lead to interrogation, imprisonment, etc. The context of verse 10 suggests that this is likely the case.

The Jews who insult/blaspheme in this way are considered to be false Jews, just like the would-be apostles in vv. 2-3. The same sort of derisive language is used: “the (one)s counting themselves to be Jews, and (yet) are not”, i.e. they are not truly Jews (cf. Rom 2:17ff, 28-29). There is no real reason to doubt that such persons were genuinely Jews from a religious-cultural standpoint. The basic idea being expressed, almost certainly, is that those who attack believers in Christ, rejecting Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, have departed from the true Israelite/Jewish religion. This would be all the more likely if the “insult” involved denouncing believers to the Roman authorities. The question of religious identity, for both Jews and Christians of the period, was complex and difficult. Most of the earliest Christians came out of a Jewish religious-cultural background, and yet lines of conflict and separation were present almost immediately. We know of this conflict best from the account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 (cf. also chaps. 10-11 and 21:17-26), and from many passages in Paul’s letters (esp. throughout Romans, and most of Galatians). The declaration in v. 9b is sharped with the concluding words, that these ‘false’ Jews are actually “a gathering together of the Satan”. The word sunagwgh/ (lit. “leading/bringing together”) is, of course, the typical term for a Jewish religious gathering and/or place of worship, transliterated in English as “synogogue”. Parallels for this expression are found in the Qumran texts, such as 1QH X.22 (“assembly of Belial”); 1QM 15:9; 1QH XIV.5; XV.34 (“assembly of wickedness”, etc). Cf. Koester, pp. 274-6.

This language is repeated in 3:9, which will be discussed in turn.

Rev 2:10

The statement(s) in this verse function as a prophecy (foretelling) of what believers in Smyrna will soon experience:

“Fear none of the (thing)s which you are about to suffer. See, the one casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$, i.e. the Devil] is about to cast [ba/llein] you into a (prison) guard (so) that you might be tested, and you will have ten days of (di)stress.”

This clearly indicates that believers will be put in prison, probably for the purposes of interrogation rather than as a term of punishment. The delimitation of “ten days” is most likely a figurative approximation, symbolizing a definite (though relatively short) period of time (Gen 24:55; Num 11:19, etc). A motif of ten days of “testing” is found in Daniel 1:12ff (Koester, p. 277). In light of this impending suffering, Jesus, in his message, provides a special word of exhortation:

“You must come to be trust(worthy) [i.e. faithful] until death, and I will give you the Crown of Life.”

A special honor is given to the one who endures suffering for Jesus’ sake to the point of death. The “crown” (ste/fano$), or wreath, typically woven out of laurel leaves, etc, in the context of Greco-Roman culture, is given as an honor to one who is victorious in competition (i.e., athletics, military battle) or who has given distinguished service to the people. The word (and concept) appears seven more times in the book of Revelation (3:11, etc), and is used occasionally by Paul (1 Cor 9:25; Phil 4:1; 1 Thess 2:19), and elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Peter 5:4, “crown of honor/glory”).

Rev 2:11

The concluding exhortation/promise in the letters always begins: “[To] the (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious…”, followed by a description of the (heavenly) reward the believer will receive, after death, or at the end-time following the Judgment. Here the promise is related to the idea that some believers in Smyrna (and elsewhere in Asia Minor) will face death for Christ’s sake in this life:

“The (one) being victorious would not suffer injustice [i.e. injury] out of the second death.”

Being put to death as a Christian involves a terrible injustice (a)diki/a, lit. without justice); yet, the believer in Christ has the comfort and security of knowing that he/she will not be harmed in any way (i.e. suffer no injury [a)diki/a]) by the “second death”. This expression is eschatological, conveying the idea that there is final death for the entire person (the soul, etc), which follows the physical death (of the body). According to a traditional line of Jewish thought (fairly common, it would seem, at the time), at the end, those who are dead (righteous and wicked both) will be raised and enter into God’s Judgment. The righteous would enter into the blessed (heavenly/divine) or “eternal” Life, while the wicked would experience the opposite. The latter is depicted most dramatically in Rev 20:11-15; 21:7-8.