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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

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

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

October 13: Revelation 12:13-17

Revelation 12:13-17

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 12:14 (translation above)

There are three key motifs in this verse:

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

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

Revelation 12:15-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 12:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 10: Revelation 12:1-6

Revelation 12-13

An intriguing aspect of the book of Revelation, following a common Apocalyptic literary model, is the way that visions develop one out of the other, often overlapping in detail and outlook, restating the same message in different and creative ways. In the first half of the book, the visions, for the most part, were relatively straightforward, expressed either in terms of: (a) scenes of worship and ritual in Heaven, or (b) vivid pictures of the Judgment which is coming upon the earth. While these aspects continue in the remainder of the book, they are presented within a more complex visionary narrative. The main theme of this narrative may be summarized as: conflict between the people of God and the wicked nations. Expressed in more traditional dualistic terms, we might better say—conflict between the people of God and the peoples/nations of Satan. This is the primary matrix in which nearly all of chapters 12-19 are set. The central theme of conflict was present throughout the opening chapters, but only begins to take a definite literary/narrative shape in chapter 11. Now in chapters 12 and 13, it is woven out in a visionary tableau, which establishes: (1) the history of the conflict (chap 12), and (2) the current manifestation in the time of distress (chap 13).

Chapter 12 has a fairly straightforward (and symmetric/chiastic) structure, which I would outline as follows:

    • Vv. 1-6: Conflict on earth—The woman and her child are threatened by the dragon
      —Vv. 7-9: War in heaven—Victory of Michael and the (good) Angels
      —Vv. 10-12: War in heaven—Victory Hymn, with praise and warning
    • Vv. 13-17: Conflict on earth—The woman and her children are threatened by the dragon

The outer portions (vv. 1-6, 13-17) refer to conflict on earth, in which a mythical dragon-being attacks a woman and her children. The inner section (vv. 7-12) narrates a parallel conflict in heaven, in which the dragon is understood as a heavenly being. The main difference is that the conflict in heaven ends in victory, while the conflict on earth remains to be fought (chap. 13).

Revelation 12:1-6

The opening words establish a new kind of vision:

“And a great sign [shmei=on] was seen in the heaven…”

The word shmei=on occurs only in the second half of the book (chapters 12-19, seven times). This marks the distinctive character of these visions, different from those in the preceding chapters. Even though the sign appears in heaven, what it describes and narrates takes place on earth. Actually, two signs appear, indicating the conflict which will take place between the two (symbolic) figures:

    • A Woman
      • cast about [i.e. clothed/draped] with the sun
      • down under her feet (is) the moon
      • a crown of twelve stars upon her head
      • she holds a child in her stomach [i.e. is pregnant]
    • A Great Fabulous (Serpent)
      • the color of red
      • having seven heads and seven horns
      • (royal cloth) bound around each of the seven heads
      • his tail drags down a third of the stars to the earth

The point of conflict between the two clearly involves the child she is bearing:

    • “being in pain and (be)ing tormented, she cried (out) to produce (the child) [i.e. to give birth]” (v. 2)
    • “the fabulous (serpent) stood in sight of the woman being about to produce (the child), (so) that it might gobble down the product [i.e. child/offspring] when she should produce (it)” (v. 4)

I have kept the translation above excessively literal, to make clear the verbal relationship between the child (“product/offspring”, te/knon) and the act of giving birth (“produce”, ti/ktw). The point is that the woman is in the process of bringing forth a child, and the ‘dragon’ stands by waiting during it all. The conflict between woman and dragon begins (in earnest) once the child is born. The reason is made clear in verse 5, where the special nature of the child is described:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Despite the rather clear allusion to Jesus‘ birth in v. 5, the imagery in the vision is more complex than a simple history of his life. Consider how this is expressed in verse 6:

“And the woman fled into the desolate (land), where she holds a place there having been made ready from God, (so) that there they might nourish her for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days.”

This does not correspond with anything in the Gospel narratives per se; rather, like many of the visions in the book of Revelation, it represents a blending of elements:

    • The woman fleeing from attack—believers fleeing from persecution (cf. below)
    • The desert location—traditionally the place where people encounter God, experiencing suffering and deprivation along the way
    • The place “made ready”—Messianic language from Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1
    • A place of refuge coming from God—The righteous/believers find security and salvation from God alone
    • The strengthening of the woman—a time of growth and testing for the people of God
    • The time frame of 1,260 days (= 3½ years)—symbolic designation of the end-time period of distress

The reference to the 1,260 days is perhaps a bit misleading, as though there are two periods of 3½ years being referenced. The book of Revelation, it would seem, conceives of a single 3½-year period which represents the time of suffering and distress which is to come upon the world at the end-time Judgment. The motif of 3½ years, expressed variously in the book, ultimately comes from Daniel (7:25; 9:27; 12:7). The woman is in the desert, ready for the time of distress, but the 1,260 days themselves do not take place until verse 14, after the vision of heavenly warfare in vv. 7-12. If we are to attempt an historical approximation, it would be as follows:

    • Vv. 1-6: The period from the conception/birth of Jesus to the present time (i.e. time of the author and his audience)
      Interlude: Vision of the warfare in Heaven (vv. 7-12)
    • Vv. 13-17: The present time through the period of distress (“3½ years”)
Symbols of the Woman, Child, and Dragon

Like nearly all of the visionary figures in the book of Revelation, the Woman (gunh/), Child (te/knon), and Fabulous Serpent (dra/kwn), all function as symbols with a wider meaning than a simple identification with specific/historical personages. I would suggest the following line of interpretation:

    • Woman—the people of God, in both a heavenly and earthly aspect; that is to say, as a figure, it has a broader meaning than “Israel” or even “believers in Christ”
    • Child—this child, the product/offspring of the people of God, has a two-fold meaning:
      (1) the (first) male son—Jesus Christ, in his human/earthly life
      (2) the other children (v. 17)—Believers in Christ
    • Dragon/Serpent—the forces/powers of evil and wickedness; like the Woman (people of God), it has both heavenly and earthly aspects.

A bit more perhaps should be said regarding the dra/kwn, a word typically rendered by the transliteration in English as “dragon”, but which more properly refers to a creature with a fabulous/fascinating appearance; it is usually understood as a (hybrid) creature resembling a serpent. Various forms of this sort of creature are attested in myths and legends worldwide. The multi-headed serpent also appears in many traditions, but is especially familiar to Greek readers from writings such as Apollonius’ Argonautika 4.153ff. The most famous such monster is the Typhon/Typhoeus (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc); though more relevant to the context here in the book of Revelation is the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545).

Legendary serpent-creatures are also mentioned in the Old Testament, based on ancient Near Eastern concepts and terminology—cf. Psalm 73:13-14; Job 7:12; 26:13; 41:1; Isa 27:1; Ezek 32:2; Jer 51:34. They did not represent evil as such; rather, they tended to symbolize chaos and disorder, including the destruction connected with warfare (e.g., Jer 51:34; Psalms of Solomon 2:25; Sibylline Oracles 5:29). The Jewish and early Christian association of the serpent/dragon with evil, was largely due to the role of the snake/serpent in the Creation narrative (Genesis 3), acting as one who tempts people to sin and disobedience against God. In the vision of the warfare in Heaven (vv. 7-12), the book of Revelation specifically identifies the dra/kwn with the figure of Satan (i.e., the Devil); a similar identification is made in 20:2. The Genesis narrative also refers to a conflict between the serpent and the woman (and her children), 3:15, which may well be in view here in chap. 12.

In the next daily note, we will examine the vision of warfare in heaven (vv. 7-12), before returning to the woman/dragon conflict in vv. 13-17.

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

1 and 2 Thessalonians

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological References in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

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

1 Thessalonians 1:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 2:19

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 3:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:23

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

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s declaration continues in verse 6:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two groups correspond to these two verbs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 2)

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

Matthew 24

Matt 24:1-3—Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are about to hear of wars…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us consider each of these additions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Chapter 25

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

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

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

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

Mark 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:3-4

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:5-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:9-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:14-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:24-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:28-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:32-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.