April 3: John 16:16-33

John 16:16-33

In the previous note, we examined the concluding words of Jesus in the Last Discourse (16:33); today, I wish to look more closely at the final discourse-unit (vv. 16-33) as a whole. The unit itself follows the Johannine discourse format:

    • Initial saying of Jesus (v. 16)
    • Response/misunderstanding by his audience (vv. 17-18)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true/deeper meaning of the saying (vv. 19-29)

Here is the central saying/statement by Jesus:

“A little (while), and you (will) no longer look on me; and again a little (while), and you will (look) at me (with open) eyes.”

This repeats an important theme of the Last Discourse: the departure of Jesus from his disciples (and from the world). The theme is stated several different ways, most notably at the beginning of the Discourse (13:33, par 7:33-34), and again in the discourse-unit 14:1-4ff, where a saying by Jesus regarding his going away leads into the dialogue with his disciples. In all of these passages, the difficulty for interpretation is that Jesus’ departure can be understood on a least two different levels:

    • His death and burial, which would be the most immediate point of reference based on the narrative context (i.e. the Passion setting of the Discourse).
    • His (final) departure back to the Father, which appears to be the better sense for the Discourse as a whole.

Along with this, the disciples’ seeing Jesus, and his coming (back) to them, can be interpreted on three different levels:

    • His appearing to them after the resurrection
    • His end-time appearance from heaven, and
    • His presence in the interim, through the Spirit

All of this is further complicated by the fact that, apparently, Jesus ascends/returns to the Father shortly after the resurrection (implied in 20:17ff), while his ultimate ascension/return is not narrated in the Gospel at all.

From the standpoint of the Passion Narrative, the tendency would be to read 16:16 in terms of Jesus’ impending death and burial (a fitting subject for Holy Saturday), yet confusion remains regarding the true point of reference. Within the narrative (the discourse), the disciples were also confused by this (vv. 17-18): “What is this that he says to us?…”. The key, of course, lies in the exposition by Jesus (vv. 19ff), though often in the Johannine Discourses Jesus does not provide the sort of conventional, straightforward explanation that his audience is expecting.

Let us briefly examine the first part of this exposition, beginning with verse 20:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you that you will weep and mourn, and (by contrast) the world will delight; but (yet) your sorrow will come to be delight.”

The reference to weeping (vb klai/w, loud crying/wailing) and mourning (vb qrhne/w) connotes funerary practices in the ancient world. Indeed, qrh=no$ can be a technical term for a funeral dirge or lament. As such, this would certainly be appropriate for the death and burial of Jesus. The “delight” (xara/) that the world (ko/smo$) might feel regarding his death simply reflects the fundamental idea that the “world” (i.e., the order of the things in the current Age of wickedness) is opposed to God, hostile to Him and to His Son, Jesus. This is all part of the Johannine theological vocabulary.

The message of encouragement for the disciples is that the “sorrow” (lu/ph) they experience from his death/departure will be changed into (“will come to be”, genh/setai) their own true delight. The use of the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”), which can connote coming to be born, along with this juxtaposition of sorrow-joy, leads into the illustration of childbirth in verse 21:

“When a woman should produce (a child), she holds sorrow, (in) that her hour (has) come; but when the child comes to be (born) [gennh/sh|], she no longer remembers the distress [qli/yi$], through the delight (she feels) that a man [i.e. child] (has) come to be (born) into the world.”

Almost imperceptibly, this illustration blends together aspects of Jesus’ suffering/death with the eschatological suffering that believers will experience following his death and departure. As previously discussed, the use of the word “hour” (w%ra) likewise encompasses (and combines) both of these aspects. Moreover, the motif of the woman in labor was commonly used as an eschatological image, though it could just as well serve as a general symbol of the suffering that is characteristic of the human condition.

In the Old Testament, 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 (such as in Jesus’ illustration here). 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; Gal 4:19. In the Genesis Creation narrative, the pains associated with childbirth are part of the “curse” —the suffering and ‘evil’ —that marks the current Age. In a similar sense, the pains of women also serve to symbolize the suffering that comes in relation to God’s JudgmentPsalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43.

The illustration used by Jesus suggests the idea of deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9—which also can have an eschatological significance. Perhaps the closest Old Testament parallel is in Isa 26:17-18, though 66:7-8 expresses a similar idea. In several other New Testament passages, the motif of childbirth, and the pains associated with it, are unquestionably used in an eschatological sense or context. Most notably, we have Jesus’ prophecy (in the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13 par]) of the coming events/phenomena that mark the end-time period of distress; he 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). Other eschatological references of note are:

    • The suffering of Judea/Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Luke 23:28-31.
    • 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”.

The other clear eschatological allusion in Jn 16:21 involves the use of the word qli/yi$ (“distress”), which came to be a technical term in early Christianity for the end-time ‘period of distress’ that will come upon humankind, and which will entail, specifically, the persecution and oppression of believers. Such use of the word derives primarily from the Greek version (LXX) of Daniel 12:1 (cf. also LXX Zeph 1:14-15; Hab 3:16). Jesus uses it in this sense in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:19, 24 par), and it occurs repeatedly in the book of Revelation (1:9; 2:22; 7:14 etc). Other references, by Paul, and elsewhere in the New Testament, are almost certainly eschatological as well, though less explicitly so—e.g. 1 Thess 3:3, 7; 2 Thess 1:4, 6; Rom 2:9, etc.

The illustration of the woman in labor is applied to the situation of the disciples in verse 22:

“And so you, (on the one hand) now you hold sorrow, but (on the other hand) again I will (look) at you with (open) eyes, and your heart will have delight, and your delight no one takes (away) from you.”

In verse 16, the vantage point was the disciples seeing Jesus; here the same relationship is established from the opposition direction—Jesus will see the disciples again; in both instances the future sense of seeing is expressed by the verb o)pta/nomai (“[look] with [open] eyes”), i.e. Jesus and the disciples will gaze at one another. Does this refer to an initial post-resurrection appearance (20:19-23) by Jesus, or does it reflect the eschatological dimension of v. 21, or both? The idea that “no one takes” away the disciples’ delight suggests something more permanent than the initial joy of seeing the resurrected Jesus again—is it an allusion to the presence of the Spirit (20:22)?

The expression “in that day” (vv. 23, 26), also occurring earlier in 14:20, might perhaps clarify the context of Jesus’ statement further; however, the same ambiguity attends its use in the Discourse. The immediate Passion setting of the narrative suggests that it refers to the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but its use elsewhere in the New Testament rather indicates that it has an eschatological connotation—cf. Mark 13:11, 32 par; Matt 7:22; Luke 6:23; 17:31; 2 Thess 1:10; 2 Tim 1:18; 4:8. Since here in vv. 23-27, the focus is on what God the Father will do for believers in Jesus’ name—i.e. when they pray and make request to him—the context would have to be the time after Jesus’ (final) departure/return to the Father, while he remains present with his disciples (believers) through the Spirit. Thus the eschatological sense of the expressions “that day”, and “(the) hour” (that is coming), is best understood in terms of the New Age that believers in Christ experience now, in the present, following the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the “realized” eschatology that dominates the Johannine Gospel—believers experience the end-time events of the resurrection, passing through the Judgment, and inheriting eternal life, in the present, through the Spirit.

According to the early Christian eschatology, the period during which believers experience the New Age, through the Spirit, would be relatively brief; Jesus’ was expected to return very soon, to deliver his people (believers) and to usher in the Judgment. The imminence of this eschatology is not nearly so prominent in the Gospel of John, and is offset by the emphasis on the present (“realized”) aspect. Even so, the early Christian outlook, involving (1) the death and resurrection of Jesus, (2) the New Age realized for believers as they live in the world during the period of distress, and (3) the return of Jesus—all understood as end-time events—was much tighter and closely-knit than it would be for believers living centuries later (or today, after 1900+ years).

Let us consider the thematic outline of Jesus’ exposition, in light of our study so far:

    • The sadness and mourning that will be experienced initially as a result of Jesus’ death and burial (v. 20)
    • Illustration of the woman in labor (v. 21)—the sadness they experience is part of the pain/suffering they will have during the end-time period of distress
    • At the same time, with the resurrection, they will have joy, and it will continue all through the time of distress (v. 22); they will see Jesus again, both immediately after the resurrection, and through the abiding presence of the Spirit
    • While Jesus is with the Father, he will remain present, united with believers through the Spirit, giving them access to the divine/eternal life and power of God; this is explained in terms of:
      • Prayer, making request/petition to the Father in Jesus’ name (vv. 23-24)
      • Instruction/understanding regarding the Father (vv. 25-27)

This exposition comes between the initial statement in v. 16 and restatement of it, in terms of Jesus’ return back to the Father, in verse 28. It bridges the gap between the moment of his death, and his  exaltation/return to the Father. Jesus returns to the moment of his death in the conclusion to the discourse (verse 32), as he establishes again the idea that his Passion begins the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) for believers. Yet, even at the darkest point of this suffering, we can be assured that, as believers, we also share in the joy and victory that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished.

April 1: John 13:1; 17:1, etc

John 13:1; 17:1, etc

“Before the festival of the Pesaµ [i.e. Passover], Yeshua, having seen that his hour (had) come…” (13:1)
“Yeshua spoke these (thing)s, and, (hav)ing lifted up his eyes unto the heaven, said: ‘Father, the hour has come—may you bring honor to [your] Son, (so) that the Son would bring honor to you…'” (17:1)

These verses more or less reprise what Jesus had stated in 12:23 (cf. also v. 27), discussed in the recent daily notes:

“The hour has come that the Son of Man should be given honor.”

Today I wish to look specifically at the use of the term w%ra (“hour”) in these sayings of Jesus. The noun w%ra is a common enough word, occurring 26 times in the Gospel of John; however, as part of the Johannine theological vocabulary, it has a special significance, and one that the Johannine writings inherited from the wider Gospel Tradition. There are two main uses of the word w%ra that should be noted:

    1. A specific reference to the Passion—the suffering and death—of Jesus, and
    2. As a distinct eschatological term.

The two are closely related and interconnected, as we shall see. Interestingly, in the eschatological references the word is anarthrous (without the definite article), while the word with the article is reserved for references to Jesus’ Passion.

1. The hour of Jesus’ Passion

The Gospel frequently refers to the coming of “the hour” (or “my/his hour”), in which the suffering and death of Jesus is clearly in view. The authenticity of this idiom is confirmed by the independent usage in the Synoptic Tradition (Mark 14:41 par; Lk 22:14, 53). In addition to the Johannine statements cited above (12:23 [also twice in v. 27]; 13:1; 17:1), there are several other passages in the first half of the Gospel (the “Book of Signs”, chaps. 2-12, during the time of Jesus’ ministry), where it is pointed out that the hour “had not yet come”:

    • 2:4: (Jesus) “…my hour (has) not yet [ou&pw] arrived [vb h%kw]”
    • 7:30: (narration) “So they sought to seize him, and (yet) no one cast the(ir) hand upon him, (in) that [i.e. because] his hour had not yet come [ou&pw e)lhlu/qei].”
    • 8:20: (narration) “…and no one seized him, (in) that [i.e. because] his hour had not yet come [ou&pw e)lhlu/qei].”

To this should be added Jesus’ words in 7:6, 8, where he uses kairo/$ (“moment”, point in time) instead of w%ra (“hour”), with virtually the same meaning—kairo/$/w%ra could easily reflect different Greek renderings of an Aramaic original.

2. An Eschatological hour

The other main use of the word w%ra, as noted above, is eschatological, and these references, while also referring to an hour that is coming, do not use the definite article. The eschatological aspect is clearest in the repeated occurrences in 4:21, 23 and 5:25, 28-29, respectively, where the context is (a) allusion to the New Age as an ideal time of righteousness and worship of God, and (b) the resurrection at the end of the current Age. Note:

    1. “…an hour comes when not on this mountain [i.e. Gerizim of the Samaritans] and not in Yerushalaim (either) will you kiss toward [i.e. worship] the Father” (4:21)
      “But an hour comes, and now is, when the true kissers toward (God) [i.e. worshipers] will kiss toward [i.e. worship] the Father in (the) Spirit and in Truth…” (4:23)
    2. “Amen, Amen, I relate to you that an hour comes, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and the (one)s hearing shall live.” (5:25)
      “You must not wonder (at) this, that an hour comes in which all the (one)s in the memorial(-tomb)s will hear his voice…” (5:28f)

The qualifying statements in 4:23 and 5:25 use the same phrasing— “an hour comes and now is [nu=n e)stin]” —an example of the pronounced emphasis on “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (discussed in a recent article). The end-time event of the resurrection, as well as the manifestation of the Spirit in the New Age, are already experienced (realized) by believers now, in the present.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, this coming “hour”, with its indefiniteness, emphasizes the suddenness and unexpectedness (and imminence) of the coming of the end—the return of Jesus, the great Judgment, etc. The principal sayings of Jesus and other passages in this regard are: Mark 13:32 par; Matt 24:44, 50; 25:13; Luke 12:39-40, 46; Rom 13:11; 1 John 2:18; Rev 3:3, 10; 14:7, 15 (on the hour of Judgment, cf. also Rev 9:15; 18:10, 17, 19).

3. How these two aspects fit together

While often overlooked by Christians today, the very identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) is eschatological (I discuss this in more detail in a recent article). All of the Messianic figure-types were understood as figures who would appear at the end-time, at the end of the current Age, to bring about the Judgment and the deliverance of God’s people. What is unique about the Christian view of Jesus as the Messiah is that he did not fulfill all that was expected of the Messianic figures during his time on earth. This must wait until his second appearance (return), and yet it does not change the fact that what took place during his first appearance was understood by early Christians as marking the end-time—the time right before the end of the current Age.

Indeed, it was the death of Jesus that marked the onset of the period of distress (qli/yi$) that would precede the end. As such, the Passion references to “the hour” (cf. above, Mk 14:41; Lk 22:53 etc) have genuine eschatological significance—a fact often not fully recognized by commentators today. Following Jesus’ death (and ultimate departure), his disciples (believers) would face a time of increasing persecution and oppression (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc), and this is much of what Jesus has in mind when he speaks of them entering into “(the time of) testing” (peirasmo/$, Matt 6:13; Mk 14:38), when even the faith of his close disciples will be put to the test (Mk 14:27ff par; 13:13b par).

This eschatological dimension of Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death) is expressed in the Gospel of John by several more sayings using the term w%ra (“hour”); the emphasis is on the suffering that his disciples (believers) will face in the world, in a time of increasing darkness and evil (before the end):

    • “…but an hour comes that every one (hav)ing killed you off would consider (himself) to bring [i.e. do] a service toward God” (16:2)
    • “See, an hour comes, and (indeed it) has come, that you should be scattered, each (one) into his own (thing)s…” (16:32, cp. Mk 14:27 par)

The addition of the perfect tense (“and it has come”) in 16:32 reflects the Passion context of the sayings in 12:23 and 17:1 (cf. above), where the same perfect form e)lh/luqen (“[it] has come”) is used. In other words, now that the moment of Jesus’ Passion has arrived, the disciples will also experience this “hour” of suffering and distress, in their own way. The paradox is that, while believers must endure the end-time darkness and evil in the world, they/we also experience the reality of the coming New Age now, in the present, through the Spirit. This is expressed by the eschatological w%ra-sayings noted above (4:21-23; 5:25, 28f), but also by Jesus’ words throughout the Last Discourse, which include the w%ra-saying in 16:25:

“I have spoken these (thing)s to you in (word)s along the way [i.e. illustrations, figures of speech, etc], (but) an hour comes when I will no longer speak to you in (word)s along the way, but with outspokenness I will give forth (the) message about the Father”

There are two levels of meaning to this statement, in the context of the Last Discourse: (1) Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after his resurrection, and (2) his abiding presence with believers through the Spirit. Both aspects are important in marking the death and resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of the New Age for believers (compare the famous words of Peter’s Pentecost speech, 2:16-17ff, citing Joel 2:28-32). Following Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation to the Father), with the coming of the Spirit, the old Age comes to an end (even before the current Age actually ends), and the New Age begins. This is fundamentally eschatological, in every sense, and must be recognized as a powerful component of the Passion narrative in the Gospels.

 

 

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

(This is a continuation of the article from Part 1)

1 Peter 3:13-22

In the previous sections (2:13-3:12), the ethical-religious instruction in the letter became more practical in approach, dealing with how believers are to conduct themselves in society (and with each other). In the verses that follow, this instruction is increasingly set within an eschatological framework, along with repeated occurrences of one of the key themes of the letter—the need to remain faithful in the face of suffering as the end draws near.

We can see how this plays out in the current section, as the author (Peter) exhorts believers that they have nothing to fear from anyone, if they follow the example of Jesus in their daily life. They may indeed face suffering, but not as the result of their own inappropriate or unlawful conduct. Believers may consider themselves happy if they “suffer through justice [i.e. on account of justice/righteousness]” (v. 14), and should not be afraid; in such instances, they are to remain faithful since “the will of God may intend” that a measure of suffering take place (v. 17). There is unquestionably an eschatological dimension to the “suffering” (pa/sxein) that his readers are currently enduring (and/or that he expects they will have to endure); for more on this, cf. the discussion on 4:17 below.

The main point in this section is that, by enduring suffering, believers are truly following Jesus’ example, and share in his own sufferings—drawing upon the same basic idea of participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus that is so prominent in Paul’s letters. This is summarized in verse 18:

“(For it is) that even (the) Anointed suffered once, about [i.e. for the sake of] sins, a just (person) over [i.e. on behalf of] (those who are) without justice [i.e. unjust], (so) that he should lead us toward God, (hav)ing been put to death in the flesh, but (hav)ing been made alive in the Spirit…”

The reference to Jesus’ death leads to mention being made of his proclamation “to the spirits in (the prison) guard” (v. 19). This much-debated verse is the basis for the doctrine of Jesus’ “descent into Hell/Hades”. It would go much too far afield to discuss the subject here in any detail; there remain considerable differences of opinion over how to interpret “the spirits”, whether they are (a) the ‘fallen’ heavenly beings of Gen 6:1-4 (cf. 2 Pet 2:4), (b) the spirits of dead human beings bound in the realm of death (Hades/Sheol)—or some combination of the two. The immediate reference to the great Flood (v. 20) suggests the former, but the sense of the discussion that follows (esp. in 4:1-6, cf. below) seems to have the latter in view. On the relation of the Flood-tradition to Christian baptism (vv. 20b-21), see my recent Christmas-season note.

The great Flood also serves the author’s purpose, as an eschatological motif, a type-pattern of the coming Judgment—just as God destroyed humankind by the Flood in Noah’s time, so the wicked will perish at the end-time (cf. Jesus’ illustration in Matt 24:37-38 par, also in 2 Peter 2:5ff). Traditionally, the most common means by which the current Age would come to end, is through water (as in Noah’s Flood) or by fire (the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah), cf. Luke 17:26-30, and 2 Pet 2:5-9; 3:5-7 (to be discussed). There are other less obvious eschatological details in this passage, of which we may note the following:

    • The connotation of the Beatitude-form in verse 14, with the use of the plural adjective maka/rioi (“happy/blessed”); cf. my earlier discussion on the background of the Beatitude-form.
    • The expression “the hope [e)lpi/$] in you” (v. 15); as noted in Part 1, the early Christian use of the word e)lpi/$ was primarily eschatological—i.e. the future hope that awaits believers (the resurrection and eternal life)—even though this was already realized, at least in part, for believers in the present.
    • There is an allusion to the coming Judgment in verse 16, with the assurance that those speak against believers will “have shame brought down” on them (vb kataisxu/nw).
    • The concluding reference to Jesus’ exaltation (to God’s right hand, v. 22) assumes the future context of the final subjugation of all things to him; Paul assumes a similar context in the discussion of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:24-28.

1 Peter 4:1-6

The instruction in 4:1-6 builds on the themes of the previous section, in the form of a more forceful ethical exhortation, based on the identity of believers as those who have participated in the sufferings of Christ (v. 1). The wickedness of the surrounding pagan (Greco-Roman) society in Asia Minor is vividly described in verses 2-3, though, to be sure, in rather stereotypical and exaggerated terms. The immorality of pagans was a stock motif in Judaism and early Christianity, but the point of the contrast is clear enough—believers are no longer to conduct themselves as those in the world around them do (v. 4). This is all the more important in light of the impending Judgment:

“th(e one)s who will (have to) give forth an account (of themselves) to the (One who is) ready to judge the (one)s living and dead” (v. 5)

The tradition cited in 3:20 is here given a new interpretation (v. 6), involving the distinction between death in the “flesh” and life in the Spirit (3:19). The idea seems to be that the Gospel is effectively proclaimed to all humankind—those who are dead both literally (physically) and figuratively—and, indeed, all humankind will be judged before God. Those who remain bound in the flesh will face the punishment of death, but those who have already died to the flesh (through trust in Jesus, symbolized by baptism), i.e. believers, will live, according to the same life-giving Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.

1 Peter 4:7ff

“And (indeed) the completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near [h&ggiken].” (v. 7a)

The ethical instruction of vv. 1-6 is followed by more practical teaching, set again in a strong eschatological context that is established in the opening verse. It is hard to imagine a more concise and unequivocal statement of eschatological imminence; and, for commentators who are reluctant to admit the imminent eschatology expressed throughout the New Testament, such a clear statement is virtually impossible to explain any other way. The author (Peter) declares, simply enough, that the end (te/lo$, “completion”) of the current Age (“all [thing]s”) has come near (h&ggiken, perfect tense)—that is, of course, near to his readers (c. 60 A.D.?); doubtless, he expected that most of them would experience the return of Jesus and the end of the Age. On the technical eschatological use of the noun te/lo$ and verb e)ggi/zw (“come near”), cf. the separate study on imminent eschatology.

1 Peter 4:12-19

The eschatological aspect of the instruction in 1 Peter is heightened considerably in this section, beginning with the opening verses (vv. 12-13):

“(Be)loved (one)s, you must not regard as strange the fiery (burn)ing (that is) coming to be among you, toward (the) testing [peirasmo/$] of you, as (if) a strange (thing) is stepping [i.e. coming] together on you; but, according to the way you share (this) in common with the sufferings of the Anointed, you may delight (in it)! that, in the uncovering of his honor/splendor [do/ca], you may have delight, leaping (about for joy).”

As noted in Part 1, the noun peirasmo/$ (“test[ing]”) has a clear eschatological connotation in early Christianity, especially as there crystalized the idea of an end-time period of distress that would come upon humankind, in the time after Jesus’ ascension and before his subsequent return. During this time, believers would be severely tested, experiencing suffering (cf. above) that included persecution on account of their faith in Jesus. This is the “fiery (burn)ing” (pu/rwsi$) that he speaks of, part of the Judgment by fire (cf. below), a fire that tests the faith of believers. The suffering and persecution of this fiery test is described, in part, in verses 14-16, with a clear distinction between suffering because one has genuinely done wrong, and suffering that is experienced by the innocent—i.e. the faithful believer—in the same manner that Jesus himself suffered.

“(For it is) that (this is) the moment of the Judgment beginning, (and) from the house of God! But, if first from us, what is the completion [te/lo$] (of it) for the (one)s being unpersuaded by the good message of God?” (v. 17)

This statement (and rhetorical question) is striking, and a bit difficult to understand at first. After all, is not the Judgment directed against the wicked? How, then, can it be said to begin with the “house of God” (i.e. believers)? Here the pronoun a)po/ (“from”) indicates the point at which, or from which, something occurs. In actuality, the early Christian concept of the end-time Judgment (kri/ma) encompasses the great Judgment proper, but also the preceding period of distress (qli/yi$) and the intervening event of Jesus’ return to earth. Believers are rescued/saved from the Judgment proper, but they do still have to endure the time of distress, as is clear from Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Mark 13:5-13ff par), the visionary narrative of the book of Revelation, and many other passages in the New Testament discussed in this series. It also reflected the practical experience of many believers at the time, as Paul, for example, makes clear at a number of points in his letters (esp. 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and the earlier articles on them in this series).

All of this means that, in going through the period of distress, believers, were, in a sense, experiencing the first stages of God’s Judgment—it begins with the house of God. However, while the fire of Judgment means punishment for the wicked (non-believers, those “unpersuaded” by the Gospel), for believers it serves as a means of testing one’s faith, like precious metal purified in the fire. At the same time, if believers are careless or negligent, they may still escape the punishment, but only narrowly, and through fire that burns away all that is impure or improper. This seems to be the implication, in part, of the citation of Prov 11:31 (LXX) in verse 18; Paul says much the same thing, though in a different context, in 1 Cor 3:12-15. The providential character of the suffering of believers is made clear in the final encouraging words of verse 19, referring to believers as “the (one)s suffering according to the will of God” —it is suffering that, ultimately, serves a beneficial purpose.

1 Peter 5:1-5

In 5:1-5, the instruction shifts to those who are the “elders”, the leading ministers and overseers of the congregations. As ‘shepherds’ who guard and guide the congregation, these persons have a greater responsibility, which includes strengthening the ones who experience suffering and persecution during the time of distress. Along with this responsibility, and a significant share of suffering as well, there is the promise of the heavenly reward, the “honor/splendor [do/ca] th(at is) about to be uncovered” (v. 1) This refers primarily to the end-time return of Jesus, but also to all that awaits for believers once we are gathered to him. This is the future hope (e)lpi/$) mentioned throughout the letter (cf. above, and in Part 1). The promise is stated more precisely in verse 4:

“…and, (at the) shining forth of the Chief Herdsman [i.e. Jesus the Shepherd], you will (receive and) care for a wreath of honor/splendor [do/ca] th(at is) without fading [i.e. that never fades].”

1 Peter 5:6-11

The ethical and religious instruction of the letter reaches it climax in these closing verses, with its sense of eschatological urgency coming through vividly. The sense that time is short, and that danger and persecution are close at hand, permeates the passage, from its initial words:

“So (then) you must lower [i.e. humble] yourselves under the mighty hand of God, (so) that He may lift you high in the (coming) moment…” (v. 6)

This “moment” (kairo/$) has eschatological significance, though the particular aspect may not be immediately apparent on a casual reading (see the other occurrences of the noun in 1:5, 11; 4:17 [above]). Also unquestionably eschatological is the use of the verb grhgoreu/w (“keep awake, keep watch”), as can be seen from similar exhortations in Mark 13:34-37 par (also 14:34ff par); Matt 25:13; Luke 12:37; 1 Thess 5:6, 10; Rev 3:2-3; 16:15. It is part of verse 8, one of the most famous in the letter:

“You must be sober, you must stay awake [grhgorh/sate]! The (one seek)ing decision against you, (the) Dia/bolo$, walks about roaring as a lion, seeking [someone] to gulp down…”

The noun a)nti/diko$, usually translated as “opponent, adversary”, here captures the eschatological Judgment-context. It literally means something like one who seeks “a right (decision) against” someone, i.e. in a court of law. The original meaning of the Hebrew /f*c* (´¹‰¹n, Satan) was also primarily judicial; even the corresponding Greek dia/bolo$ (i.e. Devil) preserves this aspect when understood literally as one who “throws across” accusations against someone. However, the Satan/Devil truly is opposed to believers (and to God), and represents the forces of evil that would attack (i.e. persecute) the faithful (lit. “gulp down”, katapi/nw; cp. the imagery in Revelation 12:4, 15-16). Christians should not despair in the face of such attacks, since believers everywhere are experiencing this (v. 9), and will continue to all the more, as the period of distress intensifies, prior to Jesus’ return.

Some commentators have sought to tie these references to specific instances of persecution against Christians, in the Roman Empire, during the mid-late 1st century, such as the brief (but severe) attack in the city of Rome during Nero’s reign. This would correspond roughly with the likely date of the letter (early 60’s), a letter which, it would seem, was itself written from Rome (“Babylon”, v. 13); even so, there is not enough information to draw any definite conclusions. The author (Peter) does not seem to be referring to direct attacks by the local (or imperial) authorities, though he may envision the possibility of this in his instruction that Christians are to behave honorably, avoiding provocative or anti-social behavior (cf. 2:13-23; 3:13-17). Any opposition toward believers is expected to come more from the surrounding (pagan) society as a whole, rather than from the government.

The final words of encouragement in verse 10, fittingly, bring out the eschatological emphasis that has been maintained throughout the letter:

“And the God of all favor, the (One hav)ing called you into His honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Ages, in (the) Anointed [Yeshua], (hav)ing suffered a little, He will (set you) down fit, He will (set you) firm, He will strengthen (you), He will (keep you) in place.”

At the heart of this statement is a contrast between a brief period of suffering in the present (“[hav]ing suffered a little”), and the eternal reward (“honor, splendor”, do/ca) that awaits for believers. It is to this moment that God has called us, the promise of which we already experience now “in Christ”; after only a little while, it will be realized in full with Jesus’ return in glory to earth. For believers, eternal life follows the consummation of the current Age, a significance that is rightly preserved by a literal translation of the idiom as “honor/splendor of the Age(s) [ai)w/nio$]”.

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

1 and 2 Thessalonians

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological References in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

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

1 Thessalonians 1:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 2:19

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 3:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:23

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

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s declaration continues in verse 6:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two groups correspond to these two verbs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

March 16: Matthew 6:13b (continued)

(This Monday Note on Prayer continues the current series of daily notes on the Lord’s Prayer.)

Matthew 6:13b, continued

In the previous note, I discussed the adjective ponhro/$ (“evil”) and how it is used in the Gospel of Matthew, and, especially, in the Sermon on the Mount. This helps us to understand better its significance here in the Prayer. I laid out five possible lines of interpretation, each of which requires that we take full account of the contrastive parallel between peirasmo/$ (ei)$ peirasmo/n, “into testing”) and ponhro/$ (a)po\ tou= ponhrou=, “from the evil”). These lines of interpretation encompass three basic semantic domains for the word ponhro/$ in the context of the Prayer (and the Sermon):

    • The evil we (i.e. Jesus’ disciples) experience generally, in various ways, during our daily life; this includes sin, misfortune, mistreatment, and persecution (on account of our faith).
    • Specifically the sin and wickedness to which we are tempted by “the Evil One”.
    • The evil which dominates the current Age, manifest especially in the coming suffering and distress (for Jesus’ disciples) at the end-time.

Arguments can be made for all three spheres of meaning:

    • The use of ponhro/$ in the Sermon favors the first option, as it tends to characterize the evil of humankind generally, and the wicked/evil things they do.
    • The common sense of peirasmo/$ as “temptation” (i.e. to sin) would favor the second option, along with the translation of o( ponhro/$ here as “the Evil (One)”, supported by 13:19, 38, and (possibly) 5:37 in the Sermon.
    • In a prior note (on v. 13a), I argued that peirasmo/$ here is best understood in terms of the (eschatological) suffering and distress which Jesus’ disciples will (or may) have to endure. The Synoptic parallels with Jesus’ words in the garden during his Passion strongly point in this direction, as do the eschatological aspects of the Prayer (discussed previously).

Is it possible that ponhro/$ here has a broad significance encompassing all three ranges (or areas) of meaning? While such a possibility ought to be considered, I would still tend to favor the third option above, for a number of reasons:

    1. The eschatological aspect, or dimension, of the Prayer is preserved
    2. It makes better sense of the idea of God bringing believers “into testing”, especially in light of the parallels with Jesus’ words in Mk 14:36, 38 par
    3. It also provides a better context for the idea of God rescuing believers and very much corresponds with the New Testament (esp. Pauline) use of the verb r(u/omai (cf. below)
    4. Its climactic position in the Prayer requires something which matches the Kingdom of God the Father, etc, in the opening petitions.

This line of interpretation is, I believe, clinched by an examination of the verb r(u/omai used in the phrase. While often translated “deliver”, it more properly means “protect”, sometimes in the more active (and dramatic) sense of rescuing one from harm or danger. Unfortunately, it hardly occurs at all in the Gospels; indeed, it is only found here in the sayings and teachings of Jesus. The only other Gospel occurrences are in Luke 1:74 (the Hymn of Zechariah) and in Matthew 27:43. That latter reference, being from the Gospel of Matthew (and the only other occurrence in Matthew), is significant and must be given serious consideration. It is part of the taunts directed at Jesus (by the priests and elders, etc) while he is on the cross:

“He trusted upon God, (so) let Him rescue [r(usa/sqw] him now if He wishes—for he said that ‘I am (the) Son of God’!”

The context clearly is the same as that of Jesus’ Passion prayer in the garden (Mk 14:36ff par), and the idea is that God might rescue Jesus from his moment of suffering (and death). The reference in Luke 1:74 touches upon the more concrete idea of being rescued from the control of one’s enemies. While this differs from the immediate situation in Matthew, it fits the language and imagery used by Paul in his letters, where the majority of occurrences of the verb are to be found—12 instances, including several in letters sometimes considered pseudonymous by critical commentators (Colossians, 2 Timothy). The verb is used two primary ways in the Pauline letters:

  1. References to Paul (and his fellow missionaries) being rescued (by God) from his enemies and opponents, persecution, dangers and perils on the way, etc—Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:10 [3 times]; 2 Thess 3:2; also 2 Tim 3:11; 4:17f.
  2. In a soteriological sense—i.e. of God rescuing believers from the power of evil that is at work in the world; this is expressed several ways, with different points of emphasis:
    (a) Rom 7:24: From the power of sin that currently dominates humankind, residing in the flesh—”who will rescue [r(u/setai] me out of this body of death?”
    (b) Rom 11:26: From the wickedness and ungodliness in the world, which currently envelops Israelites along with the rest of humanity (citation of Isa 59:20f): “the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] will arrive out of Zion…”
    (c) 1 Thess 1:10: From the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon the world (in its wickedness): “…Yeshua, the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] us out of [i.e. from] the coming anger (of God)”.

The last two references have a strong eschatological and Messianic emphasis, shared by both early Christians and many Jews of the period: that the Anointed One (Messiah, according to several figure-types) will appear at the time of Judgment to rescue the faithful of God’s people from both the wickedness in the world and God’s Judgment upon it (see also 2 Pet 2:7, 9). Paul had a very unique way of expressing this idea, which he develops in Galatians and (more fully) in Romans (cf. especially chapters 5-8). Through the person and work of Jesus, God has rescued humankind (believers) from the power of sin (and evil) which currently dominates the world. Two additional passages, reflecting this outlook, are especially relevant to the wording in the Lord’s Prayer:

1. In Col 1:13, Paul refers to God the Father as the One

“who rescued [e)rru/sato] us out of the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness and set us over into the Kingdom of his (be)loved Son”

The identification of evil with “darkness”, as a kind of kingdom in opposition to the Kingdom of God, matches the language and thought of both the Lord’s Prayer and the garden scene of Jesus’ Passion (cf. the previous note). In the Lukan parallel of the garden scene, Jesus’ declares the situation surrounding his Passion (and impending death) in exactly these terms: “…this is your hour and the authority of darkness” (Lk 22:53). According to the earliest Christian thought, the death and ultimate departure of Jesus ushers in an (eschatological) period of suffering and distress, which precedes the coming Judgment. It will be a time of significant suffering and persecution for Jesus’ followers (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc).

2. In 2 Tim 4:17-18, the idea of Paul (and other missionaries) being rescued from wicked people and opponents (v. 17, and cf. above) is broadened to include the end-time deliverance in general, expressed in v. 18 as follows:

“The Lord will rescue [r(u/setai] me from every evil work and will save [i.e. preserve] me into His Kingdom upon [i.e. above] (the) heaven(s).”

The italicized words are very close to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer:

    • “(may you) rescue us from the evil [a)po\ tou= ponhrou=]”
    • “(he will) rescue me from every evil work [a)po\ panto\$ e&rgou ponhrou=]”

There is one other passage in the New Testament which may shed some light on Matt 6:13—namely, John 17:15, where we find another prayer by Jesus to God the Father. This time it is a petition to the Father on behalf of Jesus’ disciples; it is also set prior to Jesus’ Passion (on this context, see above and the previous note). He prays for his disciples as follows:

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you should guard them out of [i.e. from] the evil [tou= ponhrou=].”

The genitive substantive (tou= ponhrou=) is the same as we have in the Lord’s Prayer; here, too, it is often translated “the Evil (One)”, but this does not seem correct to me. More appropriate in context would be “the evil (that is in the world)”, since the contrast is with “the world” or “world-order” (ko/smo$). Believers are not to be taken out of the world itself, but protected from the evil that is in it.

In summary, I would argue that it is best not to translate the substantive ponhro/$ in the Lord’s Prayer as “the Evil (One)”, but to adhere to the more literal rendering “the evil”. The reference, in my view, is primarily to the evil that dominates the current Age, the experience of which is to intensify as the end-time Judgment comes near. This idea of evil certainly includes the figure of the Satan/Devil/Belial, as the world-ruler who exercises dominion over the current wicked Age. This worldview, and its eschatological/Messianic dimension, is expressed in dozens of texts from Qumran (where the Prince/Spirit of Darkness is called “Belial”), and was more or less shared by Christians in the first century A.D. The prayer for protection/rescue from the power of evil in the world unquestionably means protection from the Evil One who is the effective world-ruler of the current Age of darkness. Much of this worldview, admittedly, is lost for Christians today; this does not change the fact that it governed much Jewish and early Christian thought at the time, and needs to be recognized in any serious study of the New Testament today. How it relates to current/modern views of eschatology is a separate issue, but one which also is vital as a point of discussion.

This study of the Lord’s Prayer will be concluded in the next daily note.

March 13: Matt 6:13a; Luke 11:4b

Matthew 6:13a; Luke 11:4b

In the final petition(s) of the Lord’s Prayer, the focus shifts from sin and evil at the social (and religious) level, to encompass a wider, cosmic dimension. The petition found in all three versions of the Prayer, and which occurs in the same Greek form in each, is:

kai\ mh\ ei)sene/gkh|$ h(ma=$ ei)$ peirasmo/n
kai m¢ eisenengk¢s h¢mas eis peirasmon
“and (we ask that) you should not bring us into testing”

A possible Aramaic version, as might have been spoken by Jesus, is (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901):

/oys=n]l= an`N^l!u@T^ la^w+
w§°al ta±¢linnán¹° l§nisyôn

The first thing to notice about the Greek text, is that the verb form as changed from a second person imperative to subjunctive: “you should/might…”. This is not as significant as it might seem, since an aorist subjunctive, especially when preceded by a negative particle (mh/) often has the force of an imperative (prohibition); and this is the only petition which makes a negative request of God (“may you not…”), indicating something we would ask God not to do. Still, it is possible that the subjunctive may be intended to soften the idea that we (human beings) are prohibiting God from doing something.

The verb used is ei)sfe/rw (or, more properly, –ene/gkw as an irregular verb form), meaning “carry into, bring into”. It is relatively rare in the New Testament (just 7 other occurrences), sometimes being used in the sense of bringing someone forcefully into a room, or into custody, etc (Lk 5:18-19; 12:11). The noun peirasmo/$, often translated “temptation”, properly means “test(ing)” (cf. the related verb peira/zw). The idea of believers being “tested” sometimes has the positive connotation of coming through the test as a proof of their character, their faith and trust, etc (James 1:12; 1 Pet 4:12-13; Rev 2:10); however, more commonly, the negative sense of temptation to sin and the danger of falling away from the faith is in view. Almost certainly, the latter aspect is intended primarily here in the Prayer. And, if the negative sense is intended, then it raises the problematic theological question of how (or why) God would bring someone into “temptation”. I have discussed the matter briefly in an earlier note on the Prayer, however, it is necessary here to go into the matter in more detail.

To begin with, we should keep in mind the conjunction kai/ which begins this petition, connecting it with the two prior. The Lukan sequence of three petitions (instead of the Matthean four) gives us a more concise set, which relate to different aspects of the life and existence of human beings (believers, in particular):

    • “may you give to us our bread…”
    • “may you release for us our sins…”
    • “may you not bring us into testing”

I would suggest that, in the Prayer itself, the word peirasmo/$ refers, not so much to temptation (to sin), as it does to suffering and distress. Consider the following thematic outline of the petitions in this regard:

    • Daily Life—Our daily needs for physical life and health, etc
    • Religion—Our moral and religious obligations, emphasizing the forgiveness of sin and guilt we hold before God
    • Suffering—The physical and spiritual distress we experience as disciples of Jesus (believers) in the world

This emphasis on peirasmo/$ as suffering and distress helps to explain, I think, the similarity between this petition in the Prayer, and the words of Jesus in the garden at the time of his Passion. Two traditions, in particular, should be noted:

  • First, the prayer Jesus makes to the Father:
    “Father…may you carry along [pare/negke] this drinking-cup from me…” (Mk 14:36 par, cf. verses 33-35 for an expression of his distress)
    The verb parafe/rw (“carry along”) has a similar sense as ei)sfe/rw (“carry/bring into”), expressing the same idea of suffering, from two perspectives: (i) a time of suffering coming to Jesus (or the disciple), and (ii) the disciple coming into a time of suffering; in both instances God is the one who brings this about. And, just as Jesus prays that this time of suffering might not come to him (however necessary it might be), so it is right and proper that his disciples (believers) follow his example and pray that they might not come into the time of suffering.
  • Second, the instruction Jesus gives to his disciples:
    “You must keep awake and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], (so) that you might not come into testing” (Mk 14:38 par, cf. verses 34, 37)
    The phrase “…might not come into testing” (mh\ e&lqete ei)$ peirasmo/n) is very close in form to that in the Prayer. The context suggests that peirasmo/$ here refers not to the temptation to sin per se, but, rather, that the disciples might find protection from the time of darkness and distress coming upon the world (v. 41; Lk 22:53). There is a strong eschatological aspect to this idea (cf. Mark 13:4-23 par) which is often lost for Christians reading the Gospels today. The (end-time) distress which is about to come upon Jesus’ followers includes the very real danger that people will be deceived and led astray, abandoning their faith as suffering and persecution intensifies (cp. Jesus’ prediction in Mk 14:27 par with 13:9-13, 22 par). Only the disciple who endures and remains true to the end will be saved (v. 13 par).

The line of interpretation given above more or less avoids the problematic notion, often discussed, that God might bring believers into temptation (i.e. to sin), quite contrary to other teaching we find in the New Testament (see the famous statement in James 1:13-14ff). However, if one decides that the petition does, in fact, refer to temptation (to sin) in the customary sense, it remains necessary to explain what this might mean in the context of the Prayer. Several possibilities may be adopted by commentators in approaching the issue:

    • God is ultimately responsible for all things, controlling all events which we experience; this is applied to temptation as well, even though He is not the one who (directly) tempts us. In other words, this petition simply asks that we be kept away from sin and temptation, but expresses it in a manner that emphasizes the will and power of God.
    • God may choose, by his sovereign will, to bring us into times of testing (including temptation to sin); even though these might be necessary (Jesus himself was tempted), it is natural that we would wish to avoid such moments. Far from being sinful, or cowardly, it is a sign of faithfulness to express our human fears and desires to God.
    • Temptation involves a legitimate testing by God of His people (for the Old Testament background of this, cf. Exod 16:4; 20:20; Deut 8:2, 16; 13:4; 33:8; Judg 2:22, etc; Fitzmyer, p. 906); as a result, some will fail and fall away, but the true disciples, the faithful remnant, will pass the test. This petition, like others in the Prayer, refers not so much to the temptation of the individual believer as it does to the Community as a whole. There is a natural wish that the Community not have to experience the reality of temptation and sin with the effects it has on the communal identity of Christians. In other words, even if an individual is not immediately affected, sin brings suffering and distress to the Community.

Other possible ways of addressing the question represent, to a large extent, variations on the three given above. I believe that first of these would best represent the ancient worldview and manner of thinking shared by Jews and early Christians at the time.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

Birth of the Son of God: Jn 16:21; 18:37; Rom 8:22-23

As part of this series of notes on the “Birth of the Son of God”, today I will be looking at Jesus’ birth in terms of the suffering and pain associated with childbirth. The severe pains accompanying the birth process go back to the very beginnings of human history (cf. the ancient tradition in Gen 3:16ff), and are often used as a symbol, representative of human suffering and misfortune as a whole. Prior to modern times, childbirth could be quite dangerous as well, often resulting in the death of the child or the mother. The suffering it signified also could be connected with sin in various ways, as in the narrative of Genesis 3. For traditional Old Testament imagery of labor pains related to human suffering and sin, see Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Hos 13:13; Mic 4:9-10; to this should be added the expression “born of a woman” to indicate the human condition in its suffering (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4; also Gal 4:4 [cf. below]). Sometimes birth pains are contrasted with the joy and relief experienced when the child is born (Gen 35:16-17; John 16:21, cf. also Isa 65:23; Mic 5:3). The pain of childbearing was such that birth without pain could serve as an image of God’s special blessing or as characteristic of an idealized future age (cf. Isa 66:7-8). Painlessness has been ascribed to Jesus’ birth in Christian tradition (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s Homily on the Nativity [late 4th cent.]), sometimes connected with the idea of the virgin birth in partu (already indicated in the mid-2nd cent. Protevangelium §19-20); however, there is no evidence for this in the Gospel accounts themselves. On historical and literary grounds, we may fairly assume that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the ordinary pains of childbirth, though it does raise an interesting Christological question regarding the extent to which Jesus participated in the human condition (see esp. Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3; 2 Cor 5:21).

In the New Testament, labor pains are used to symbolize two related ideas:

  • The suffering associated with the end-time Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; 1 Thess 5:3), drawn from Old Testament imagery related to the Day of YHWH (Isa 13:8, etc). In Jewish tradition, the time of distress preceding the (Messianic) restoration/redemption of Israel came to be referred to as “the birth-pains of the Messiah” (jyvmh ylbj).
  • The suffering of believers (John 16:21—also the imagery in Gal 4:19; Rom 8:22-23)

These two aspects were already combined in the Qumran hymn 1QH 3 [1QHa column XI lines 7-18]. The distress of the Community is compared with that of a woman in labor, who eventually gives birth to a ‘Messianic’ figure called the “wonderful counsellor” (after Isa 9:5). This birth is contrasted with another woman who bears a wicked “viper” (hupa)—the fate of this latter offspring is destruction. The Community of the Qumran texts appears to have applied eschatological imagery, just as early Christians did, to their own situation.

The Synoptic narrative framework sets Mark 13:8 par (the Olivet/eschatological discourse) generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death—note also the sayings in Mark 14:21b par and John 16:21 (cf. below) as well as the eschatological imagery in the saying of Luke 23:28-29 on the way to the cross. Suffering is not specifically mentioned of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament (Gal 4:4 is the closest, cf. above); however, as I have demonstrated in several prior notes, there a number of points of contact between Jesus’ birth and death within the Gospels (including the Infancy narratives). In this regard, it is worth examining briefly an interesting parallel between John 16:21 and 18:37.

John 16:21; 18:37

Within the structure of the Gospel, both of these passages occur shortly before Jesus’ death and must be understood in that context:

  • John 16:21—part of the great series of discourses (Jn 13:31-17:26) set between the ‘Last Supper’ (13:1ff) and the arrest of Jesus (chapter 18); the immediate context of 16:16-24 refers to the sorrow which the disciples will experience at Jesus’ death/departure.
  • John 18:37—part of Jesus’ first dialogue with Pilate (Jn 18:33-38) set during the Roman ‘trial’ (18:28-19:16) on the day of his crucifixion (cf. the recent discussion on 18:37).

Let us look at the main points of similarity:

Jn 16:21:

  • gegnnh/sh| “she causes to be (born) [i.e. gives birth to] the child”
  • e)gennh/qh…ei)$ to\n ko/smon “a man comes to be born into the world

Jn 18:37: e)gw/ w($ tou=to (“unto this I…”)—statement of ultimate purpose:

  • gege/nnhmai “I have come to be (born)
  • “I have come into the world [ei)$ to\n ko/smon]”

—this verse refers primarily to the birth and incarnation of Jesus; however, note two additional details which relate to the overall idea of “the birth of the Son of God”:

  • “every one being [i.e. who is] out of [i.e. from] the truth…”—parallel to the spiritual birth of believers (Jn 3)
  • “…hears my voice”—allusion to resurrection (Jn 5), i.e., ‘birth’ from the dead

Another passage related to the “birth” of believers (as sons/children of God), specifically involving labor pains, is Romans 8:22-23:

Romans 8:22-23

“…all creation groans together [sustena/zei] and is in pain together [sunwdi/nei]; and not only this, but also (we our)selves, holding the beginnings from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also groan [stena/zomen] in (our)selves, looking to receive from (God) placement as son(s) [ui(oqesi/an]—the ransom/redemption of our bod(ies)”

Here we have the idea, also expressed (in similar terms) in Galatians 4:4-7, the “adoption” (lit. setting/placement as son) of believers, i.e. as sons (or children) of God. Clearly, this is connected ultimately with the salvation/redemption at the end-time—which occurs by way of the (physical/bodily) resurrection. This must be understood along with two other verses from Rom 8:18-30:

V. 19—Creation eagerly “looks to receive from (God) the uncovering [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God

V. 29—”the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) [i.e. appointed/determined] before(hand) (as being) in form together (with) His Son, unto his being [i.e. so Christ might be] the first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Believers, then, are sons (together) with Christ, here principally in terms of the resurrection—i.e. Jesus as “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5).

Lastly, it is necessary to discuss (however briefly) the famous and enigmatic vision of the woman with child in Revelation 12.

Revelation 12

Interpretation of the complex and colorful visions of the book of Revelation is notoriously difficult, varying greatly—from the contextually plausible to the outrageously fanciful (and everything in between). One major problem is that the author makes use of many multivalent symbols—that is, different images and traditional elements are combined into a single scene or figure—and commentators make a grave mistake when they try to limit interpretation to a single corresponding meaning. The woman of Rev 12:1ff may perhaps best be summarized or described as the “Daughter of Zion”, generally representing the People of God, but presented in an exalted manner using cosmic symbolism. The narrative vision of this woman can be divided into two parts:

  • Verses 1-6—here I take the woman to represent Israel leading up to the birth (and death/resurrection) of Jesus; she is described as pregnant and in severe labor pains (v. 2), indicative of both the suffering of the people and the (eschatological) distress presaging the end (cf. above). The messianic character of the male child she delivers is clear from the allusion to Psalm 2:9 in verse 5.
  • Verses 13-17—here the woman (with her offspring) is best understood as representing the Christian Community, forced to dwell in the wilderness for a period of 3 1/2 years (or 1260 days), which I take to be generally symbolic of the period between the earliest days of the Church (characterized by persecution, cf. Acts 4-8) and the imminent/impending end time (marked by the last judgment and return of Christ).

In both sections, the woman (and her child/children) is threatened by the great serpent/dragon, identified with Satan (v. 9). In between (vv. 7-12) there is a interlude depicting a cosmic battle between two sets of angels in heaven—one group led by Michael, the other by the Dragon. The imagery of this scene is drawn from Jewish tradition, influenced largely by Daniel 10-12. There is a chiastic quality to this triptych:

  • Israel and Christ (the Son of God) threatened by the Dragon (vv. 1-6)
    • Victory of the Sons of God (Michael and the Angels & the Saints) in heaven over Satan (vv. 7-12)
  • (Spiritual) victory of believers (sons of God) over the Dragon/Satan (vv. 13-17 [verse 17b])

The central scene in heaven serves as a source of hope and encouragement for believers facing persecution.