The Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I examined the references to the “holy spirit” in the Qumran Writings, focusing primarily on the three key texts—the Community Rule (1QS), the Damascus Document (QD/CD), and the Hymns (Hodayot, 1QH). These writings share a common understanding regarding the holy spirit of God, and its relation to the holiness of the Community. As it happens, there is a rather different aspect of the pneumatology of the Qumran texts, expressed within an elaborate ritual (and visionary) setting, that is attested in several key writings, most notably the so-called “Angelic Liturgy” or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”. Because of the difficulty and complexity of this material, it is necessary to give it a separate treatment here.

Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice

This work is preserved in at least 9 manuscripts from Qumran (4Q400-407, 11Q17), and one from Masada (Mas1k). The number of manuscripts, copied over more than 75 years, attests to the popularity of the work; presumably, it was utilized within the worship and ritual of the Qumran Community. The commonly accepted title today (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice), reflects the structure of this work—a series of thirteen “Songs”, one for each Sabbath during the first quarter of the year. The introductory formula for each Song indicates that it was meant to accompany the daily burnt offering on the Sabbath. The association with the Temple-ritual is important for an understanding of the Community’s religious identity, both in its origins and present constitution—with a strong priestly component, having separated from the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. As occurred within Judaism following the destruction of the Temple, it was necessary for the Qumran Community to find a new way of expressing the reality of the Temple ritual for its members—at the spiritual/symbolic level, and within an entirely new visionary setting.

For a fine treatment of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, in English, with reconstruction, translation, textual notes, and commentary, cf. James R. Davila, Liturgical Works, Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans: 2000), pp. 83-167.

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice make for difficult reading; in addition to the fragmentary text, the work has a visionary and liturgical character that is quite foreign to our religious sensibilities today. A proper understanding is helped by realizing that there are three interrelated aspects throughout the Songs:

    • The ritual setting and religious life of the Community, tied to the actual Sabbath-worship during the year
    • The Old Testament description of the Temple and Tabernacle, along with related traditions
    • A visionary description of the heavenly realms, which, while drawing upon Scriptural expressions and imagery, is largely independent of Old Testament tradition

The three aspects blend together in an original and powerful way. It is the last aspect that is especially foreign to Christians today; however, it will not seem quite so strange to scholars and students who are familiar with the Jewish apocalyptic and mystical writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. and beyond. It is worth touching on these briefly before proceeding to a discussion of the Songs.

Jewish Visionary Tradition

There are certain definite parallels between the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and several lines of visionary and mystical tradition in Judaism. Certainly, many of the pseudepigraphic writings from the period c. 200 B.C. to 400 A.D. contain apocalyptic elements that include visions of heaven—even visionary journeys through the heavenly realms—similar to the descriptions we find in the Songs. However, the closest parallels are perhaps to be found in the Hekhalot literature, so named because the writings involve a visionary ascent through the heavenly “palaces” (hekhalot, tolk*yh@). It represents an expression of the so-called Merkabah (“chariot”) mysticism. The merkabah (hb*K*r=m#, “sitting/riding place”, i.e. chariot) idea stems largely from Old Testament tradition, and especially the visions in Ezekiel 1 and 10, as representing the dwelling place and throne of God. In the Merkabah-mysticism, this idea is adapted in a curious way: the mystic goes down (descends) into the chariot, which serves as the vehicle for the visionary ascent. It is possible that the “chariot” here stands as a symbol for a ritual meditative technique that enables the visionary experience. In any case, the seer ascends through the “palaces” of the seven heavenly realms, facing challenges and dangers along the way; ultimately, if successful, he reaches the Throne of Glory and is allowed a glimpse of the worship performed there by the Angels.

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice share many characteristics and manner of expression with these Hekhalot writings. The litany-like sequences and chains of phrases are quite similar at many points, though never reaching the excesses (of names, titles, and apparent nonsense-words) found in the Hekhalot literature. The central feature in common, of course, is the idea that the earthly participant is able to witness the Angelic worship and ritual that takes place around the Throne of God. The dating of the Hekhalot literature is difficult; the main texts (or macroforms) date from the early medieval period, but may contain material or traditions that go back to the 1st-2nd centuries A.D.

Another important line of tradition is the Enoch-literature, including the main Book of Enoch (1 Enoch), the later 2 Enoch, and the Hebrew 3 Enoch (which is also to be counted among the Hekhalot writings). This reflects a long line of tradition stretching back centuries. The rather cryptic reference to Enoch in Genesis 5:24 may indicate that there were already extensive Enoch-traditions in circulation by the early-mid 1st millennium B.C., though it is just as likely that the Genesis reference served as the basis for all the subsequent traditions. In any event, a central feature of the Enoch writings is a detailed description of the heavenly realm, which the exalted seer experiences as part of an extensive heavenly journey. The main Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) is a complex, composite work that was almost certainly composed over a long period of time, by different authors. The earliest portions probably date from around 250 B.C., while the latest were likely written by 100 A.D. The work was known by the Qumran Community, and may even have been regarded as authoritative Scripture; that it was also familiar to Christians in the 1st century is indicated by the reference in Jude 14-15, and by certain parallels elsewhere in the New Testament.

The Structure of the Songs

In my view, there is a clear three-part structure to the Songs:

    • Songs 1-5—In these five Songs, the setting of the heavenly realm is established, along with the “holy ones” in heaven; a comparison is also made with the earthly Temple/Tabernacle, and the “holy ones” (i.e. the Qumran Community, esp. its priests) on earth.
    • Songs 6-8—These three Songs form the heart of the work, with a central depiction of the heavenly Temple (Song 7), flanked by two Songs (6, 8) which present a series of praises and blessing by seven “Princes” of heaven.
    • Songs 9-13—In these five Songs, the heavenly Temple is described in detail, culminating with the inner Throne room of God, and the worship/ritual that takes place there.

Songs 1-5

In the first two Songs, the heavenly-setting is introduced, with the palace/temple and “holy ones” of heaven being compared with those on earth—a comparison that continues at least into the second Song. The theme of holiness is established from the beginning, along with the expression “holy (one)s”, and, in particular, the extended idiom “holy (one)s of the holy (one)s” (<yv!odq= yv@odq=). This is important because of the way it blends together three different ideas:

    • The supreme and complete holiness of God
    • The heavenly beings as “holy ones”, and
    • The sanctuary (i.e. in the Temple) where God dwells as the “holy of holies” (Exod 26:33-34, etc)

The double-plural form is best understood as an intensive—i.e., “the most holy (place), most holy (ones)”. This expression occurs multiple times in the main portion that survives from Song 1 (4Q400 fragment 1, col. i.1-21 = 4Q401 fr. 15). The parallel between the “holy ones” (i.e., heavenly beings) and the “holy of holies” (Temple sanctuary) is key to understanding the visionary landscape of the Songs. Unlike the earthly Temple, made of physical objects and lifeless furnishings, the heavenly Temple is made of living beings—that is to say, of the heavenly beings or “holy ones”, and the ones closest to God’s throne are the holiest of these. The heavenly “holy ones” are all to be understood as “spirits”. In column ii of the same fragment, the phrases “spirit [j^Wr] of all…” and “holy ones of the holy of holies” occur in close proximity (lines 5-6).

Nothing certain survives of Song 3, and very little of Song 4, so there is no way of knowing exactly what these portions contained. Also quite uncertain is the nature of the 5th Song, though it seems to provide a parallel of sorts with Song 1. This would make sense if, as indicated above, Songs 1-5 represent a distinct unit. One interesting detail is the mention of the multi-colored material (hmqwr) in connection with the “inner chamber” of the King (God); this certainly alludes to the decoration of the Tabernacle/Temple sanctuary and the curtain at its entrance, and is an important part of the parallel between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries. The largest fragment of Song 5 (4Q402 fr. 4 = Mas1k i.1-7) would seem to emphasize God’s work as Creator, especially in the creation of the heavenly beings. The references to warfare (lines 7-10) may relate to the ancient cosmological myth that defines the creation of the universe as the product of conflict (among the deities) in heaven. However, I think it perhaps more likely that these references simply allude to the traditional role of the heavenly beings as “armies” who will fight on God’s behalf; in the eschatological battle depicted in the War Scroll (1QM), the “holy ones” of heaven join with the “holy ones” on earth (i.e. the Qumran Community) to defeat the forces of darkness.

Songs 6-8

As noted above, Song 7 is the center of the entire work, preceded and followed by parallel Songs (6, 8) which consist of a series of praises and blessings uttered by seven “Princes” of heaven. Possibly the number seven, apart from its symbolic and traditional importance (cf. in the book of Revelation, etc), refers to the cosmology of the time, with the idea of seven concentric heavenly domains (or spheres), and God dwelling at the highest point. Certainly the Hekhalot literature (cf. above) makes much use of this cosmological framework; given the basic similarities with the Songs in other respects, it seems likely that a similar framework may be in view here—seven heavenly realms, each with a pair of “Princes” who govern it. Songs 6 and 8 have precisely the same format; in Song 6 the praises/blessings are uttered by seven “chief Princes”, while in Song 8 the praise comes from seven corresponding Princes who are identified specifically as priests (of the interior) and called “wondrous second Princes”. The distinction with the first group of seven is not entirely clear, but it may reflect the Priest-Ruler dual leadership emphasized in the Qumran texts.

Song 7 is the center-point, and we are fortunate that at least two substantial sections have been preserved. The first of these (4Q403 fr. 1 col. i.30-47 = 4Q404 3-5 + 4Q405 4-5, 6) contains the opening of the Song and a two-fold invocation: (1) to all the “holy ones” in the heavens (lines 31-40), and (2) to those beings which make up the heavenly ‘Temple’ (41-47). These “holy ones” are also called spirits— “spirits of understanding” (line 37) and “spirits of righteousness (line 38). Moreover, the living beings which form the heavenly Temple and sanctuary are also “spirits” (of perfect knowledge and light). As noted above, the spirits in the sanctuary would have been considered especially holy, and this seems to be expressed in lines 44ff; here I cite Davila’s reconstruction of the text (p. 124) in translation:

“Most hol[y spi]rits, living divinities, [ete]rnal holy spirits above all the hol[y ones… of wonder, wonderful of effulgence and ornament. And wondrous is the God of gl]ory in the light of perfect light(!) of knowle[dge] […in all wondrous sanctuaries. The spirits of God surround the dwelling of the K]in[g of faithfulness and righteousness. All] [its walls…in the holy of holies…”

In the separate fragment 4Q403 fr. 1 col. ii.1-17 (+ 4Q404 fr. 6), we seem to have a clearer sense of the structure of the heavenly Temple, consisting of seven exalted holy places (line 11, cf. above), along with a ‘tabernacle’ (dwelling) of the “exalted chief” that apparently stands as separate “holy place” before the entrance to the inner chamber (holy of holies). All throughout this space, and especially in and around the inner sanctuary, there are “holy spirits” —spirits of God, and even those holiest of the holy ones (“spirits of the holy of holies”, line 7f). It would seem that these spirits all appear in bright, fiery colors, drawing their life and energy from the spirit of God Himself. This last point is not entirely clear, but it is suggested by the fascinating wording at the beginning of this fragment: “…complete [i.e. perfect] light, multi-colored(ness) of (the) spirit of the holy of holies”. In any case, they are depicted as colorful flames that surround God’s throne in the inner chamber (line 9f). The spirits of the inner shrine all praise God together (lines 15-16).

Songs 9-13

The final 5 Songs provide a more detailed description of the heavenly Temple and sanctuary, culminating with a liturgical presentation of the praise/worship of God that takes place before His Chariot-Throne (Songs 12-13). The chariot-motif for the throne of God stems primarily from the visions in Ezekiel 1 and 10, as noted above. Throughout in these Songs there continue numerous references to the “spirits” who are the beings that comprise this living sanctuary, and especially those “spirits of the holy of holies” (11Q17 col. iv, etc) who surround the Throne of God. Those spirits who make up the curtain and floor, etc. of the sanctuary are especially glorious—spirits of light in various shapes, wondrous colors, etc. As we move in closer to the very throne of God, the praise of these spirits begins to grow quiet, and we even read of a “spirit of quiet” that emerges among these divine beings. From this quiet blessing (cf. the beginning portions of Song 12), a tumult of praise comes forth again, radiating outward into the entire heavenly realm.

In the concluding Song 13, the focus shifts from praise of God to the (sacrificial) ritual aspect of worship performed by the priests. On the heavenly level, of course, these are holy ones (Angels/spirits) who perform the ritual, but they have their corresponding form among the holy ones (the Qumran Community) on earth. These ministers perform their offerings in purity, with a “spirit of holiness” (vd#oq j^Wr, 11Q17 col. ix). The holy ones approach God in living garments that correspond with the colorful spirit-beings who form the curtains, etc, of the sanctuary—they have garments “of light of the spirit of the holy of holies” (4Q405 fr. 23 col. ii.8ff). They possess pure colors, with the substance/likeness of the “spirit of glory”.

Conclusion

From this study of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, as well as those texts and passages discussed in Part 1 of this article, it is clear that the Qumran Community had a very distinctive understanding of the “holy spirit”. On the one hand, it continued the concepts and terminology from earlier Old Testament and Jewish tradition, emphasizing the cleansing aspect of God’s Spirit, along with the close association with wisdom and spirit-inspired leadership. There were two main aspects to the role of the Spirit in the leadership of the Community—focusing on the priestly character of the Community, and the continuation of the inspiration of Scripture (the Torah and Prophets) through the inspired teaching/interpretation that took place within the Community.

However, in terms of the specific expression “holy spirit” (or “spirit of holiness”), the Qumran texts understand (and express) this almost entirely in terms of the holiness of the Community. The true members of the Community, by  their very nature (as “sons of light”), possess an upright spirit, given to them by God, even prior to joining. Upon entry, they are further cleansed (symbolically and ritually) by God’s holy spirit, and are made completely holy. The need to maintain this holiness and purity was central to life in the Community. Indeed, the Community itself, as representing the faithful ones in Israel, possessed a “holy spirit”. This emphasis on its holy character is best seen in the Community Rule (1QS) 8:20-21ff: it is a “Community of holiness”, led by a “council of holiness”, and comprised completely of “men of holiness” (or “men of complete holiness”), being established, in truth, by God’s own “spirit of holiness”.

I disagree with commentators (e.g., Charlesworth) who claim that the references to the “holy spirit” in the Qumran texts are a precursor to the early Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. I find little indication of this. Instead, the “spirit of holiness” appears to be one of many different “spirits” who function together to perform God’s will. Of course, all of these spirits are holy—they are among the “holy ones”, as is clear from the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. There is no one “holy spirit”, but many holy spirits—those closest to God being the most holy (“spirit[s] of the holy of holies”, etc).

Thus I would maintain that, for the Qumran Community, there is an interesting example of the “one and the many” with regard to the “holy spirit”. On the one hand, the texts can still speak in traditional terms of the “spirit of (God’s) holiness” —that is, His own Spirit that is at work in the world. At the same time, this Spirit is manifest in many different ways and forms, through the different spirits that serve God on His behalf, in relation to His people (the Community). All of these are holy, but when one is emphasizing or focusing on this idea of holiness or purity, specifically, one can speak of a distinct “spirit of holiness” that is present in the Community, and is reflected in the “holy spirit” of the Community itself, along with the “spirits” of its individual members.

It is in the entrance ritual that the Qumran understanding of the “holy spirit” is closest to that of the New Testament and early Christianity. During the water-ritual (par. to Baptism), the “spirit of holiness” cleanses the individual from sin, and the person’s own spirit is thus made holy. The holy person then becomes part of a holy Community. The main difference in early Christianity was that the very Spirit of God comes to dwell within the person (and in the Community). I do not find anything comparable in the Qumran texts. Instead of the person’s own spirit being made holy, the emphasis is on the Spirit of God abiding in their spirit (and uniting with it). There is also, of course, the idea of the Holy Spirit as representing the continuing presence of the exalted Jesus in and among believers; this is thoroughly unique to Christianity, with noting remotely like it in the Qumran texts.

April 21: John 17:24 (continued)

John 17:24, continued

o%ti h)ga/phsa$ me pro\ katabolh=$ ko/smou
“(in) that [i.e. because] you loved me before the casting-down [i.e. foundation] of the world”

This is the last of the three i%na/o%ti-clauses in verse 24. Following the first two (i%na) clauses (discussed in the two previous notes), this o%ti clause builds upon the prior clause—especially the phrase “my honor/splendor [do/ca] that you have given to me”. Both conjunctive particles (i%na and o%ti) can be translated generally as “that”, but o%ti often indicates specifically the reason that something is— “(in) that…”, i.e. “for, because”. In particular, this clause states the reason for God the Father having given do/ca (honor/splendor) to Jesus the Son. The verb de/dwka$ (“you have given”) is a perfect form, while h)ga/phsa$ (“you loved”) is an aorist. In context, this difference is perhaps best understood as indicating the priority of the act of love—i.e., the love (past action) precedes the gift (action/condition continuing into the present). In 3:35, a similar point is made, using the present tense of a)gapa/w (indicating the love as it is generally, and regularly, demonstrated):

“The Father loves [a)gapa=|] the Son, and has given all (thing)s in(to) his hand.”

This “all” certainly includes the do/ca of the Father. As discussed in the previous note, the word do/ca, which properly means something like “esteem, honor”, as applied to God, refers essentially to the nature and character of His person that makes him worthy of our honor/esteem. As the Son, Jesus receives this same do/ca from the Father, possessing it as his own (1:14; 17:5), just as a child carries within him/her, in various ways, the nature and character of the parent. The Son then reveals this do/ca to his disciples (believers) in the world (2:11; 7:18; 8:50, 54; 11:4, 40). This is his mission on earth,  the duty (e)ntolh/) given to him by the Father, and the reason why he was sent into the world; it was completed with his sacrificial death (and resurrection), which “gives honor” (related vb doca/zw) to Father and Son both (12:16, 23, 28; 13:31-32; 14:13; 17:1, etc).

The phrase “before the casting-down [katabolh/] of the world” refers to the creation of the universe (the current world-order, ko/smo$), utilizing the image of a craftsman or builder laying down a foundation. The same expression occurs 10 other times elsewhere in the New Testament, including twice (as here) with the preposition pro/ (“before”)—Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:20. These latter passages evince a belief in what we would call the “pre-existence” of Jesus—that is to say, he existed as the divine/eternal Son of God prior to his life on earth, indeed, prior to the very creation of the world. The Gospel of John clearly presents such a Christological view as well (1:1-2, etc), though, in the Discourses of Jesus, it is nowhere stated so clearly as here in the Prayer-Discourse (also in v. 5). It merely confirms the idea, expressed throughout the Gospel, that, as the Son of God, Jesus shares the same (divine/eternal) nature and character of the Father.

However, the main point here is that believers are able to see this do/ca, and to share in it as well (as the offspring/children of God). By being with (meta/) Jesus, in union with him, we can see his do/ca—that is, to see the Father—and will be able to look upon it (vb qeore/w) even more closely when we are with him in heaven. As I noted, this same idea is expressed in 1 John 3:2-3, and Paul promises something similar in his famous declaration in 2 Cor 3:18:

“And we all, with a face having been uncovered, (look)ing against (the glass) at the splendor [do/ca] of the Lord [i.e. as looking at it in a mirror], we are (chang)ed over in (the) shape (of) th(at same) image, from splendor into splendor, even as from (the) Lord, (the) Spirit.”

The phrase “from do/ca into do/ca” is probably best understood as a transformation from what we are now as believers (in the Spirit), into what we are destined to be in the end. This latter splendor also comes from the Spirit—which is both the Spirit of God (the Father) and of Christ (they share the same Spirit, 1 Cor 6:17; 15:45, etc). This basic idea would certainly be worded differently in a Johannine context, but as a fundamental promise for believers, and as a theological statement, it is much the same.

In the next daily note, we will continue this study, by turning to the next verse (25), the second to last of the Prayer-Discourse, as Jesus circles around to another theme of the Discourses, building on the common key-word and theme of the “world” (ko/smo$).

April 20: John 17:24 (continued)

John 17:24, continued

i%na qewrw=sin th\n do/can th\n e)mh\n h^n de/dwka/$ moi
“that they would look upon my honor/splendor that you have given to me”

This is the second of the three i%na/o%ti clauses that make up verse 24. The first (i%na) clause, discussed in the previous note, states the primary wish or request that Jesus makes to the Father (“I wish that [i%na]…”). It is parallel to the i%na-clause in the first line of the two stanzas of vv. 21-23 (discussed in prior notes), in which he requests that [i%na] all believers would be one. This unity is based on the union we have with Jesus (the Son)—and this union is reflected in the initial wish-clause of v. 24:

“that [i%na] wherever I am, they also would be with me”

This raises the question of how we should understand the force of the second i%na-clause here. Is it epexegetical, further explaining and building upon the first clause? or, does it reflect the goal/purpose and result of that clause? According to the latter view, believers are to be with Jesus so that they/we can see his do/ca. I tend toward the first view, in which case the second i%na-clause builds upon (and explains) the first—i.e., that believers would be with Jesus and that they/we would behold his do/ca. The implication is that wherever Jesus is, believers will see the honor/splendor given to him by the Father, since this is based on his identity as the Son.

There can be no doubt, however, that a heavenly setting is in mind. The context (cp. 14:1-7) is Jesus’ departure (return) to the Father, to be alongside of Him just as he (the Son) was in the beginning (1:1-2ff). While believers can see him now, in the present, through the Spirit, a different sort of vision will be possible in heaven, being present with Jesus alongside the Father. An eschatological/afterlife context is certainly implied, marked, in terms of the traditional early Christian eschatology, by the end-time appearance of the exalted Jesus on earth. It is at this moment that all believers will be gathered to him, and taken up with him into heaven (Mk 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:14-17, etc), even as Jesus indicates in 14:3.

There is a powerful reference to this in 1 John 2:28-3:3, as the author presents his instruction with an eschatological framework (a common feature of ethical-religious instruction in the New Testament). The nearness (i.e. imminence) of his coming (v. 28, cf. verse 18) makes it all the more important that believers remain faithful, continuing in union with Christ (and each other). As believers, we are already the offspring of God—His children, even as Jesus is the Son—but, in the end, with the appearance of Jesus, the full nature of this identity will be revealed (cp. Rom 8:18-25). This revelation comes by way of a direct vision of God (“we will see Him just as He is”), and the vision transforms believers so that they/we will also be just as God is. Some commentators understand 1 Jn 3:2-3 as referring to the vision of Jesus, rather than of God the Father; this does not seem to be correct, though it could just as easily apply, and it certainly is what is being referenced in Jn 17:24.

The verb used here in v. 24 is qewre/w, which is sometimes translated blandly as “see”, but more properly signifies an intense or careful observation of something—i.e., “look (closely) at, look upon, behold” —sometimes with the sense of “perceive”. It is used frequently in the Gospel of John (28 out of the 58 NT occurrences), including 7 times in the Last Discourse (14:17, 19 [twice]; 16:10, 16, 17, 19). In those references, the emphasis is on the world (including the disciples) not being able to look upon Jesus—because he is going away to the Father. However, at a deeper level, this also refers to an inability to see the truth about Jesus. At the moment, in the narrative context of the Discourse, the disciples have only a limited awareness of this as well; but, following the resurrection, and with the coming of the Spirit, they will truly know and understand who Jesus is, as the Son sent by the Father. This visionary knowledge finds its completion, and fulfillment, when they are united with the Father and Son in heaven.

The key term in this regard is do/ca, typically translated “glory”, but more properly rendered as “esteem, honor”. It corresponds (loosely) to the Hebrew dobK* (“weight, worth, value”), which, when applied to God, may connote that which makes him worthy of our honor and esteem. For lack of a better term in English, this quality may be referred to as “splendor”, a shorthand honorific for the nature and character of God Himself. It is sometimes conceived of visually, through various light- and color-imagery, and so forth; however, according to the traditional Israelite theology, no human being can truly see God (visually) in this life.

A central theme of the Johannine theology (and Christology) is that Jesus, as the Son sent by God the Father, makes this do/cathe nature and character of the Father—known to his disciples (believers). This is because Jesus (as the Son) shares the same do/ca, given to him by the Father. The point is made specifically by Jesus here in v. 24, as also earlier in the Prayer-Discourse (v. 5). What is most important about this do/ca, is that it was given to the Son (Jesus) by the Father. This follows the guiding theological principle of the Johannine Gospel, that the Father gives “all things” to the Son (3:35). This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 6:1-13

Isaiah 6:1-13

After a hiatus for Holy Week, we pick up our Saturday Series studies, currently working in the Book of Isaiah. The past few studies were divided according to the specific areas of Biblical Criticism—textual criticism, historical criticism, source criticism, literary criticism. Here, in this study on Isa 6:1-13, we will be using an inductive, exegetical approach, touching upon the various areas of criticism as they are relevant in the context of each verse.

Isaiah 6:1

“In (the) year of (the) death of the king Yah-is-my-strength {Uzziyahu}, and (it was then) I saw the Lord sitting upon (His) seat (of honor), being high and lifted (up), and His (garment)s hanging (down) were filling (His) palace.” (v. 1)

This majestic statement establishes the vision-scene recorded in chapter 6. It is significant that, though the introduction to the book as a whole (1:1) refers to it as a µ¹zôn (literally something one looks/gazes at), actual visions in the book are quite rare. This is one of the few, and it is significant since it marks the beginning of the historical-biographical strand (involving the person and times of Isaiah himself) that runs through the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39).

Textually, this establishing verse is straightforward enough. The only significant variation is found in the Greek version (LXX), where the anthropomorphic detail of YHWH’s hanging garments (Heb. šûl, plur.) is translated more abstractly as dóxa (“honor, splendor”). It is, however, an essential detail, since it relates to the overall vision of God (YHWH) on his throne. The prophet sees Him sitting on his seat of honor (kiss¢°, i.e. throne), raised high above the floor. The locale is further identified as the palace (hêk¹l) of YHWH—that is, the Temple in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, palace and temple were closely connected; indeed, the royal palace and the deity’s temple were often part of the same building complex. Moreover, the temple itself was envisioned as a divine palace, with the deity dwelling in it as a king or ruler. The sanctuary was the “throne room” for the deity, and people would approach God in the sanctuary just as one would the king on his throne. For a similar throne-vision of YHWH, see the vision of Micaiah in 2 Kings 22:19-23; it is a type of visionary genre that would last for centuries, down through generations of Jewish and Christian tradition.

From a form-critical standpoint, this is a vision-narrative (in prose), set within a biographical and historical context—that of the life and career of the prophet Isaiah. It marks the beginning of his prophetic career (cp. the “call-narratives” of Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and certainly that which is central to chaps. 2-39, i.e. the Assyrian crises in the second half of the 8th century B.C. In the previous study, mention was made of the critical theory that the opening and closing sections of chapters 2-12 (chs. 2-4, 11-12) may have been composed at a later time (perhaps in the exilic or post-exilic periods), while including earlier (and authentic) material. There is no doubt, however, that the central chapters 6-8 belong to the time of Isaiah himself. This is clear from the opening words here in verse 1, where the vision is said to have occurred the year of Uzziah’s death (c. 740 B.C.). There is no reason, on objective grounds, to doubt the accuracy of this detail. Indeed, the prophetic narrative in chapters 6-8, in particular, derives from authentic historical tradition regarding the prophet Isaiah. Viewed source-critically, the detail in 8:1-2, 16ff allows for the (strong) possibility that these chapters have essentially been preserved from the circle (of disciples) around Isaiah.

Isaiah 6:2

“Burning (creature)s were standing from (the place) above Him, (with) six pairs of wings, six pairs of wings for each—(with) two it covered its face, and (with) two it covered its feet, and (with) two it soared (aloft).”

The main textual difficulty in verse 2 involves the precise meaning of the noun ´¹r¹¸ (here plural ´®r¹¸îm). The verbal root ´¹ra¸ means “burn” (as with fire); however, elsewhere in the Old Testament, the noun refers to a (venomous) snake, presumably with an ancient allusion to the burning/fiery effect of its poison (see Num 21:6-8; Deut 8:15). In Isa 14:29 and 30:6, the noun is parallel with other words used for a deadly snake (n¹µ¹š, ƒe¸a±, °e¸±eh), and clearly refers to a flying snake. Almost certainly that is the same image intended here in 6:2—a winged, flying serpentine figure. However offensive this might be to our modern sensibilities, especially with the traditional negative connotations of the serpent/snake motif, it would not have been nearly so problematic in Isaiah’s time. Hybrid creatures (with animal and human attributes) were frequently used in religious art and royal iconography throughout the ancient Near East, including Palestine and Syria, among the Israelites and related peoples.

The k§rû» (plural k®rû»îm) was a similar divine/heavenly being, which likely possessed both human and animal characteristics. Parallels in ancient Near Eastern iconography suggest a winged lion or bull with a human head. Such sphinx-like figures regularly flanked the throne, and the golden box (or ‘ark’) that served as the throne of YHWH, and placed in the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Jerusalem Temple, also had a pair of winged kerubs surrounding it. As for the image of a winged snake, it is well known from Egyptian royal and religious art (as on the throne of Tutankhamun, see below), and is also attested, for example, on a number of stamp-seals in Palestine, dating from the 8th and early 7th century (the very time of Isaiah). On this, see N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; Israel Exploration Society; Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997), nos. 11, 104, 127, 194, 206, 284, 381, 385; Roberts, p. 97. This detail would tend to confirm the historical authenticity of chapter 6. Mention could also be made of the tradition reflected in Num 21:6-9; 2 Kings 18:4, of a pole-mounted snake that served as a religious/cult object.

I have translated ´®r¹¸îm literally as “burning (creature)s”, though, as noted above, it is likely that winged serpentine figures (with human attributes) are being envisioned. They represent divine/heavenly beings who stand in the presence of YHWH and attend to him on His throne. The covering of their faces and “feet” (which can be a euphemism for the male genitals) indicates the awe and reverence they display before God, and anticipates Isaiah’s own response. In Egyptian iconography the (winged) snake or cobra serves a protective, guardian role; here, the sense is rather different, emphasizing instead the splendor and holiness of YHWH Himself.

Isaiah 6:3

“And this (one) called to that (one) and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy (is) YHWH of the (heavenly) armies! His weight/worth (is beyond the) fullness of all (the) earth!'”

Probably there are two flanking seraphs overhead, matching the two kerubs of YHWH’s throne, and they call out to each other. It is an overwhelmingly massive and majestic scene, the words uttered by the seraphs matching the visual in verse 1, of YHWH towering high, with his outhanging garments filling the entire Temple sanctuary. The adjective q¹¼ôš and noun k¹»ô¼ each reflect the attempt to express, however inadequately, the nature and character of YHWH. The root qdš fundamentally refers to the idea of purity, especially in the religious context of something that is consecrated or set apart. By contrast kbd carries the basic meaning of weight, with the religious and ethical connotation of the worth and value of something (as the weight of a precious metal, etc). The three-fold exclamation of God’s purity (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] has only a two-fold exclamation) indicates how different He is from the ordinary world of human life and existence. Similarly his “weight” far surpasses and transcends the full measure (“fullness”) of the entire world.

Isaiah 6:4

“And the ‘elbows’ of the (door)posts wavered from the voice of the (one) calling, and the (entire) house was filled with smoke.”

The imagery from the prior verses continues, blending theophany (manifestation of God) with the sacred space and ritual of the Temple sanctuary. In a sense, we are moving backward—from the throne of YHWH in the innermost shrine, out to the threshhold, and across into the outer sanctuary where the altar for burning incense stood. These last two details are reflected here in verse 4. The technical language can be difficult to render clearly in translation, with the expression “‘elbows’ [i.e. hinges, pivots] of the doorposts” referring to the threshhold of the inner shrine, and the “smoke” a reference to the burning of incense. The “house”, of course, is figurative for the Temple, either the entire building or the sanctuary specifically (here the latter is intended). On the image of the entire house being filled, one is reminded of the scene of the anointing of Jesus, in the Gospel of John: “and the house was filled out of the fragrance of the myrrh-ointment” (12:3). From an historical standpoint, this detailed use of Temple-imagery is interesting, since it is unlikely that Isaiah himself would have ever seen inside the sanctuary (on Hezekiah’s presence in the sanctuary, cf. 2 Kings 19:14-15ff).

Isaiah 6:5

“And I said: ‘Oh, (what this does) to me! For I have ceased (to be)! For I (am) a man of polluted lips, and I (am) sitting [i.e. dwelling] in the middle of a people of polluted lips! For my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of the (heavenly) armies!'”

This verse indicates Isaiah’s response to his great vision. He apparently sees himself positioned in the Temple, probably at the threshhold of the inner shrine. His initial exclamation may be rendered more concisely as “Woe to me!” or “Oh, for me!”, however in my expanded translation above I have sought to capture the proper sense of the effect this vision has on the prophet. From a literary-critical standpoint, it is worth considering the kind of wordplay (and play on images) that is being utilized in the narrative here, something that tends to be lost or obscured in most English translations.

For one thing, we have the contrast between YHWH sitting (yœš¢») on His throne (v. 1), with Isaiah who recognizes that he has been “sitting” (yôš¢», i.e. ‘dwelling’) in the midst of an unclean people. Here the uncleanness (‰m°) of the human condition is contrasted with the purity (qdš) of YHWH. The effect of this realization is expressed by another bit of wordplay (dual meaning) involving the verb d¹mâ. This root fundamentally refers to something ceasing or coming to an end; it can be understood either in an existential sense (i.e. ceasing to exist, being destroyed), or in terms of an action or ability that ceases. The latter sense can specifically refer to the action/ability of speaking—to cease speaking, i.e. be silent. For a prophet (n¹»î°), a spokesperson for God, who speaks on His behalf, the effect on one’s ability to speak is most significant. I have rendered d¹mâ rather literally above, more or less assuming that the existential sense is primary. This follows the basic religious-theological idea that a human being is unable to see God and still live (Exod 33:20, etc). At the same time, it expresses the awe the prophet feels, and so he is unable to speak; this is similar to the reaction of the seraphim in YHWH’s presence (covering their faces).

There is a similar play on the motif of one’s lips (š®¸¹¾ayim). It again relates to the idea of a person speaking, but it also serves as the focal point for the pollution that characterizes the populace. Here the ritual aspect (unclean food, etc, touching the lips) is used to express a religious and ethical point, well expressed, for example, in 29:13: “this people comes near with its mouth, and with its lips it gives weight [i.e. honor] to me, but its heart is wide (apart) [i.e. far away] from me”. The pollution of the people (their lips) has more to do with a false/corrupt religion and ethic, than it does with their ritual behavior, in spite of the cultic (Temple) setting of the vision.

Isaiah 6:6-7

“And he soared to me, one from (among) the burning (creature)s, and in his hand (was) a glowing (stone) (that) he took with a pair of (tool)s for taking (stones) from upon the place of sacrifice. And he touched (it) upon my mouth, and said, ‘See, this has touched upon your lips, and your crookedness is turned (aside), and your sin is wiped (away)’.”

The word mizb¢aµ literally means the place of ritual slaughter (i.e. the altar for sacrificial offerings); however, it came to be used regularly for other kinds of altars, such as those for offering incense. That is the altar referenced here—the incense altar located in the outer sanctuary. The smoke filling the room comes from the offerings of incense, and the hot (glowing rƒ¸) stones are the coals from the altar. Here again is another play on the seraphs as “burning” creatures; one of them picks up a burning/fiery coal from the altar. Now, however, the fire from the altar serves a different ritual purpose—namely, to purify the prophet, specifically his mouth (and lips). For the human prophet to survive in the presence of YHWH’s purity and holiness, his impurity has to be removed. From a ritual standpoint, this may be referred to as expiation. The danger of contact between human and deity is “turned aside” (vb sûr); sometimes this entails a turning away of the deity’s anger and intent to punish, etc, but it can also involve the removal of any possible evil or offense from the human participant. In the case of the prophet Isaiah, it also involves a specific kind of consecration—for a particular prophetic mission.

Isaiah 6:8

“And (then) I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘See, I (am here)! Send me!'”

YHWH’s throne room is the location of His royal court, such as in the pattern of human palaces. This court-setting is only faintly indicated here; a more detailed example is found in the earlier throne-vision of Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-22, mentioned above). In that vision, YHWH asks of his servants and messengers, “Who will open (up) to Ahab, and (then) [i.e. so that] he will go up and will fall on the heights of Gil’ad?” (v. 20). One particular divine/heavenly being (“spirit”) comes forward and volunteers for the assignment (v. 21), much as Isaiah does here. The purpose of the mission in the Micaiah vision is to entice Ahab so that he will end up facing judgment (by military defeat) for his wickedness. Isaiah’s prophetic mission has a similar purpose. It is likely that the burning coal that touches Isaiah’s lips contains an allusion to the message of (fiery) judgment that the prophet must bring to the people of Judah (see a similar use of fire from the altar in Rev 8:3-5). This represents the dual-aspect of the burning/fire motif in the vision: the purity of YHWH effectively burns away (and destroys) all impurity—for the wicked this means destruction from God’s Judgment, while for the righteous, their sins (1QIsaa reads plur. “sins” in v. 7) are wiped away. This is part of the powerful imagery depicting YHWH as a “devouring fire” (33:14; cf. 10:17; 30:27-33; 31:9; Roberts, p. 100).

The nature and significance of the message of Judgment given to Isaiah is expressed in verses 9-13. While part of the same vision scene, these verses (esp. 9-10) are better known to many readers, from their use (generally out of context) in several key passages of the New Testament. This secondary application, along with certain theological questions that tend to be raised, makes a more detailed study of vv. 9-13 useful here. In next week’s study, we will focus both on the text itself, and on some of the wider issues of interpretation/application, as a way of demonstrating how a sound critical approach can help greatly in addressing such issues.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

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

The Johannine Writings, Part 2:
The Letters of John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 2:28-3:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 23: Revelation 5:1-8

Revelation 5:1-14

Revelation 5:1 begins the second half of the vision in chapters 4-5. If chap. 4 was devoted to a vision of God (the Father) on His throne, chap. 5 is a vision of Jesus at the right hand of the Father—that is, sharing the ruling place with God. The parallelism between these two halves is unquestionable, and reflects a central theme of the book, theological and christological, which was already introduced in the opening words, and the first vision, in chapter 1. The key points in parallel are:

    • The central presence of the Throne, representing the seat of ruling-power in heaven. The Lamb has a place near and/or on the Throne.
    • Both God and Lamb are surrounded by the “seven Spirits” and have authority/control over them.
    • The Living Beings and Elders likewise surround both figures and give homage/praise to them, in a similar fashion.
    • The Song of praise that is sung to each uses similar language and form, beginning with the word a&cio$, usually translated “worthy”—i.e. “Worthy are you…”
Rev 5:1-4

The chapter begins with a narrowing of focus for the vision, closing in on the image of the throne:

“And I saw upon the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, a paper-roll [i.e. scroll] having been written (on the) inside and on the back, (and) having been sealed down with seven seals.” (verse 1)

Here we have the central motif of the “right hand” of God. The adjective decio/$ literally means “giving”, referring to the right hand as the auspicious (or giving hand)—i.e. the hand or side from which blessing comes, where symbols of power and authority are focused, etc. A fundamental element in the early Christian view of Jesus, and the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), was that, following his death and resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a position at the “right hand” of God in heaven—cf. Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22. In terms of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, this motif was largely drawn from Psalm 110:1, and its application goes back to Jesus’ own words (Mark 12:36; 14:62 pars). The viewpoint here of the right hand of the throne of God prepares the reader for the appearance of the exalted Jesus.

Another important detail in this verse is the seal or stamp (sfragi/$) on the scroll. Typically, a papyrus or parchment scroll (bi/blo$, here the diminutive bibli/on) would be tied up with a string, upon which a clay or wax (or lead) seal was applied, and then stamped down (vb. katasfragi/zw) with an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) to indicate ownership. God, as the Ruler, is the one who has stamped down his signet onto the seal, indicating his ownership. No one could tamper with (i.e. break) this seal; only the owner (God himself) has the authority to open the scroll, or someone who possessed the same authority (from God). The divine character of this seal is further emphasized by the plural (“seals”) and use of the number seven. This is the point of the solemn declaration which follows in verse 2:

“And I saw a strong Messenger proclaiming in [i.e. with] a great voice, ‘Who is a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and to loose(n) its seals?'”

This is the same adjective (a&cio$) applied to God in 4:11, and which will similarly be applied to the Lamb in verse 9. I have temporarily left it untranslated (cf. further in the next note), but will mention here the fundamental meaning of something which is brought into balance (i.e. being of equal/appropriate weight). The significance of this is brought out vividly in verse 3:

“And no one—(not) in heaven, and not upon the earth, and not down under the earth—was able [i.e. had power] to open up the paper-roll and to look at it.”

The implication, of course, is that no one in all of creation possessed the personal authority of (or from) God in order to be able, rightly, to break the seal. The verb du/namai literally means “be (en)powered, have power”, but is often better rendered in English as “be able (i.e. to do something)”. The emphasis is not on a test of strength or power as such, but on a person’s authority (i.e. ability) to do something. This scene becomes personalized when the visionary (seer) gives his own reaction:

“And I wept (very) much (at this), that no one was found a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and (so) not to (be able to) look at it.” (v. 4)

The importance of looking (vb. ble/pw) at the contents of the scroll is emphasized repeatedly, though it is not immediately clear why this would be so. On the one hand, it can be regarded as a literary/narrative device, building suspense—the reader is waiting and eager to find out what is written on this scroll (v. 1). At the same time, the ability to look at its contents implies someone with the authority to open the scroll and read it, which, again, anticipates the appearance of the Lamb (Jesus), building narrative suspense. The person allowed to open a sealed scroll would be: (a) the owner of it (or his/her representative), or (b) the person to whom it was rightfully sent (and intended to be read). Both aspects of meaning are present here, though it is the former which is emphasized.

Rev 5:5-8

In these verses, we find a precise response to the scenario established in vv. 1-4—no one in all of creation is able to open the scroll. There is a chiastic structure to vv. 1-8 which I outline as follows :

Indeed, the answer comes in verse 5:

“And (then) one out of the Elder (Ones)s said to me: ‘Do not weep! (for) see, the lion th(at is) out of the offshoot [i.e. tribe] of Yehudah, the root of Dawid, (he is able) to open up the paper-roll and its seven seals!'”

On these “Elder Ones” (presbu/teroi), see the previous note on 4:4. His response is characteristic of heavenly beings (Angels) when they appear to chosen ones among God’s people (i.e., “Do not be afraid!”, etc). The declaration which follows is among the most overtly Messianic in the book of Revelation, expressed very much in traditional language, specifically related to the Davidic Ruler figure-type (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Two expressions are involved:

    • “the lion out of the tribe of Judah”—The lion commonly symbolizes power, but also a leading/regal position among all the other animals (i.e. ‘king of the beasts’); lion images were frequently used in the royal iconography of the ancient Near East. Here the expression is derived primarily from Genesis 49:9-10, part of Jacob’s testament (“last words”) to his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12). These verses were given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus, as we see from the Qumran texts (4Q252 5:1-4), and other writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. The ruling staff (tb#v@) in Gen 49:10, was blended together with that of Balaam’s oracle (Num 24:17), to form a dual Messianic reference, prophesying the coming of the (end-time) Davidic Ruler.
    • “the root of David”—This expression comes from Isaiah 11:1: “A stick/twig [rf#j)] will come forth from the stem [uz~G#] of Yishai {Jesse}, a green shoot [rx#n@] will bear (fruit) from his roots [vr#v, pl.]”. The Septuagint (LXX) translates both uz~G# (“stem”) and vr#v# (“root”) as r(i/za (“root”), which is used here in Revelation. Isaiah 11:1-4ff was one of the key passages interpreted as prophesying the coming of the Davidic Messiah. With its military allusions, which could only be realized for Christians at the return of Jesus, it is generally absent from the New Testament, except for 2 Thess 2:8 and (here) in the book of Revelation. David himself was more properly referenced by the “branch” [rx#n~ / rf#j)], which, under the influence of the similar expression “sprout/branch of David” (dw]d*[l=] j^mx#) in Jer 23:15; 33:5 (cf. also Zech 3:8; 6:12), gave rise to rich set of Messianic motifs—see the Qumran texts 4Q161 7-10 iii 22; 4Q174 1-3 i 11; 4Q252 5:3-4; 4Q285 5, and other writings of the period.

In verse 6, this Messianic description (of the exalted Jesus) gives way to the image/vision of a Lamb (a)rni/on):

“And, in the middle of the ruling-seat and the four Living (Being)s, and in the middle of the Elder (One)s, I saw a Lamb having stood as (one) having been slaughtered, holding seven horns and seven eyes, which are the the [seven] Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”

The repeated use of e)n me/sw| (“in the middle [of]”) is a bit confusing, but I believe it is meant to emphasize two things: (1) the central position of the Lamb in the heavenly scene, and (2) his close proximity to the throne of God. There are four visual attributes or characteristics of this Lamb:

    1. It is standing (i.e. alive) even though it appears to have been slain. The paradox of this image may be conveyed by the sequence of perfect verb forms—”having stood”, “having been slaughtered”. This aptly reflects the dual-aspect of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the importance of both to his exaltated position/status as Messiah and Son of God.
    2. It has been slaughtered (vb. sfa/zw). This refers to ritual slaughter, i.e. a sacrificial offering. There are several possibilities:
      (i) The Passover lamb (Exod 12:6, etc), the blood of which symbolized God’s protection/deliverance for the faithful ones among His people.
      (ii) A sacrifice for sin/guilt (Lev 14:12-13), though lambs were more commonly used in the daily offering, etc, and not regularly connected with atonement for sin/guilt.
      (iii) The sacrificial offering at the establishment of the Covenant between God and His people—according to Exod 24:5-8, this was a sacrifice of “good will”, utilizing an ox/bull for the partial burnt offering.
      Jesus’ death is associated with all three of these, at various points in the New Testament. Probably the connection with the Passover is most clearly in view, as also in 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19, and, presumably, John 1:29, 36 (cf. the details in 13:1, etc, 19:14, 29[?], 31). There may also be a allusion here to Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:32-33).
    3. It has seven horns. The horn of a powerful animal, like the lion itself (cf. above), was a common ancient symbol of the strength and authority to rule; as such, it was natural as a Messianic motif—i.e. Luke 1:69 (cf. Ps 132:17; 92:10; 148:14; Ezek 29:1; 1 Sam 2:1, etc). The number seven here indicates divine power and authority, that the Lamb shares rule with God the Father (on/at His throne).
    4. It has seven eyes. These are identified specifically with the heavenly beings or Messengers (“Spirits”) which surround God’s throne and which “are sent forth into all the earth”. This imagery seems to be drawn from Zech 4:2ff, in which the “lamps” (Angels/Spirits) are described as “the eyes of the Lord” which travel back and forth in all the earth (v. 10). Here they are the eyes of the Lamb, indicating again the close relationship between the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) and God the Father.

Verse 7 narrates simply how the Lamb approaches the throne (at God’s right hand) and takes the scroll from God (“the One sitting on the ruling seat”). This action triggers an explosion of praise from the heavenly beings around the throne (vv. 8ff), similar to that which they offered to God in 4:8-11 (on this, cf. the previous note). It is an elaborate and dramatic scene, as the Living Beings and Elders again fall down to give homage—this time to the Lamb. They hold musical instruments (the kithara, a six- or seven-stringed harp) and golden dishes containing fragrant smoke (incense), identified as the “prayers” of the holy ones. These represent different aspects of worship—music and ritual offerings, only in the latter case the offerings, in a Christian context, have been defined in terms of prayer (largely eliminating the sacrificial/ritual dimension).

The Song sung by the heavenly beings will be discussed in the next daily note.

September 21: Revelation 4:1-7

Revelation 4:1-11

With chapter 4, a new division of the book—the beginning of the main body—is introduced. The vision of chapter 4-5 leads into the great vision cycles that make up the bulk of chapters 6-18. As has been previous noted, the book of Revelation is also structured as a letter, and, from the standpoint of epistolary (and rhetorical) form, the throne-vision in chaps. 4-5 functions something like the propositio, or main statement (proposition) of the case to argued or expounded in the main body of the letter, the probatio. The visions (and vision cycles) which follow serve as the probatio, demonstrating (or “proving”) what is represented in the vision of chaps. 4-5.

Rev 4:1

The structural shift is clear from verse 1, with its chiastic shape, marking a separation from the previous vision in 1:9-3:22:

“These things” refer specifically to what John heard and experienced in the previous visions, including the messages to the seven churches. The expression meta\ tau=ta (“after these [thing]s”) must be understood in this sense. Central to the verse is the description of the voice, which is again that of the risen Jesus, as in the earlier vision of 1:9ff:

“and the first voice which I heard as a trumpet speaking with me…”

It is Jesus who calls John to “step up” into heaven. The visionary motif of doors or gates opening into heaven is relatively common (cf. Gen 28:10ff; 1 Enoch 14:15ff; Testament of Levi 5:1, etc). An invitation to enter and experience the realm of the heavenlies is essentially a commonplace in apocalyptic literature (e.g., 1 Enoch 14:8ff; Testament of Levi 2:6ff; Martyrdom of Isaiah 7; cf. Koester, p. 359).

Rev 4:2-3

The parallel with the first vision is seen also in the language used in verse 2:

“(And) straightaway I came to be in the Spirit, and see!…”

With the shift to a new visionary location, the author mentions again being “in the Spirit” (e)n pneu/mati, 1:10). This consistent reference to the Spirit is important in terms of understanding the source and (revelatory) nature of the visions as described by the seer. The central point of the vision is that of God’s ruling-seat or “throne” (qro/no$) in Heaven. It is here that the rhetorical (and polemical) thrust of the book of Revelation begins to come clearly into focus: the rule of God (and Christ) in Heaven contrasted with the false/wicked rule of earthly (spec. Roman imperial) government. Of course, the idea and image of God’s throne goes back to most ancient times, with the royal iconography (and ideology) of the ancient Near East, and continuing on to the time of the Roman empire. There are numerous references in the Old Testament (Psalm 9:7; 11:4; 103:19, etc), but the most prominent passages include visionary scenes of the heavenly court, such as 1 Kings 22:19ff (par 2 Chron 18:18ff); Isa 6:1-3; Ezek 1:4ff (v. 26); Dan 7:9-10. The “throne” represented the ruling power of God, and served as a graphical way of depicting or referring to God, and could almost be seen as a living/divine entity in itself. Note here in vv. 2-3, how closely connected God and the throne are:

“See! a seat of rule [i.e. throne] was set in the heaven, and upon the ruling seat [i.e. throne] (One was) sitting, and the (One) sitting (was) in vision [i.e. appearance] like a stone (of) iaspis and sardios, and a (rain)bow [i@ri$] circling round the ruling seat in vision [i.e. appearance] like a smaragdos (stone)”
[The words in italics indicate colored stones or gems—purplish(?), red {carnelian}, and green {emerald}]

In many ways, the throne (and its surroundings) simply reflects the manifest and glorious appearance of God—the divine/heavenly character reflected by the description, which resembles that of other theophanies in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition (Exod 24:10; Ezek 1:26-28; 10:1, etc). In the developed Jewish mystical/visionary tradition of the Rabbinic and early medieval periods, the “throne-chariot” (merkabah, inspired largely from Ezek 1) was a fundamental symbol.

Rev 4:4

As the description of the throne vision continues, we move outward from the center of the throne itself, and a somewhat surprising detail emerges:

“And circling round the ruling seat [qro/no$] (were) twenty-four (other) ruling seats [qro/noi], and upon the ruling seats (were) sitting twenty-four Elder (One)s cast about [i.e. clothed] in white garments, and upon their heads (were) gold crowns.”

The description of these twenty-four seats as “seats of rule” (qro/noi), which circle around God’s throne (qro/no$), rather clearly indicates that the persons/beings on these seats share in God’s rule in some way. They are called by the common term presbu/tero$, referring to an old/elder person. It is not entirely clear whether these should be regarded as: (a) heavenly beings, or (b) glorified human beings. They do seem to be distinct from the heavenly Messengers (i.e. Angels) in that the Messengers are sent by God out into the world (as his “eyes” or to convey his word), while these “Elders” appear to have fixed places (of rule) around His throne. The use of the term presbu/tero$, along with the number twenty-four (12 x 2), suggests that they represent the people of God—perhaps as a heavenly counterpart, or corollary, to God’s people on earth. The specific number 24 suggests a combination of (a) the twelve tribes of Israel, and (b) the twelve apostles (i.e. the Church). Recall that Elders, representing Israel, were present at the covenant Theophany in Exod 24; similarly, Elders, representing believers in Christ, were appointed by the Twelve (apostles) who were present at the establishment of the “new covenant” (Mark 14:22-25 par), and who represent the new constitution of the people of God (cf. the symbolism in Acts 1:6ff, 15ff; chap. 2). The twelve apostles and the twelve tribes are closely connected in an (eschatological) saying of Jesus (Matt 19:28; par Lk 22:28-30), and also in the vision of the “new Jerusalem” at the end of the book of Revelation (21:12-14ff, to be discussed). The crowns on the heads of the elders similarly suggest a connection with believers, who will inherit the crown/wreath (ste/fano$) as a heavenly honor (and sign of eternal life), as well a sign that they have a share in the kingdom/rule of Christ (2:10; 3:11).

Rev 4:5-7

After the description of the Elders, the vision returns to more traditional theophanous imagery:

    • “(lightning) flashes and voices and thunderings”—this draws upon ancient Near Eastern storm theophany, most commonly applied to the ‘Lord’ (Baal) Haddu (the Storm [deity]) in Canaanite religion, but was found just as prominently in Israelite descriptions of El-Yahweh. In the Semitic/Hebrew idiom, the word for thunder is literally “voice” (loq), based on the idea of thunder as the “voice” of God.
    • “seven lamps of fire burning in the sight of the ruling-seat”—this repeats the description from 1:4, and again refers to these heavenly beings as “the seven Spirits of God”. That these “Spirits” should be understood as heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) is clear from the explanation in 1:20 and 3:1, as well as various references in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition (Psalm 104:4; Ezek 1:12-13; Zech 4:2, 10; Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7; 90:21, etc).
    • “a glassy sea like ice-crystal”—this is said to be “in the sight of [i.e. in front of] the throne”, and also is a traditional image (cf. Exod 24:10; Ezek 1:22, 26), which likely is related to ancient Near Eastern cosmology, i.e. the firmament and God’s throne above the waters (Gen 1:6-7; cf. Psalm 29:3; 93:4; 104:3; 148:4).
    • “four living (being)s (appear)ing full of eyes in front and in back”—these living [zw=|a] beings are similar in description to those in Ezek 1:4-10 (cf. also Isa 6:2-3). Here they are said to be “in the middle” of the throne, perhaps meaning “in the middle, where the throne is”, and also “in a circle” around the throne. They feature prominently in the remainder of the vision.

The appearance of each of the four “living beings” combines various human, animal, and hybrid/heavenly characteristics. This is common, from the standpoint of ancient or traditional religious iconography, when attempting to describe the Divine. The ancient Near East, in particular, made use of many images of winged animals or beings with human and/or animal faces. It is almost as though it was necessary to make use of all the characteristics of living creatures, and the attributes these characteristics represent (strength, power, beauty, wisdom, etc), in order provide even a remotely adequate description of God. These living beings, indeed, have as their main task the praise and worship of God (v. 8). This aspect of the vision will be discussed in the next note.

Much has been made of the specific appearance of each being, resembling, in turn: (a) “a lion”, (b) “a bull/calf”, (c) human (“face/appearance as a man”), and (d) “an air(borne eagl)e flying”. These have been interpreted numerous ways, including the famous (traditional) association with the four Gospels (Evangelists). However, it is probably best to interpret them (if one must) as representing all of creation—specifically, living creatures (animal and human). It is, in particular, the noblest and most regal (lion, bull, human, eagle) portions of the animal world (according to the traditional reckoning) which are represented. Special emphasis is given on the wings of these living beings (v. 8), and this will be addressed in the next daily note (on vv. 8-11).

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:8 (continued)

Matthew 5:8, continued

In the previous article, I discussed the first clause of the sixth Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:8)—

Maka/rioi oi( kaqaroi\ th=| kardi/a|, o%ti au)toi\ to\n qeo\n o&yontai
“Happy the (ones) clean in the heart, (in) that they will see God”

where I examined the meaning and significance of the expression “pure/clean in the heart” (kaqaro\$ th=| kardi/a|). Today, I will look at the result-clause, which states that they are declared “happy/blessed” in that they will see (o)pta/nomai optánomai, lit. “look with [open] eyes [at]”) God.

“They will see God”

There are several difficulties involved with this phrase, both theological and eschatological.

A fundamental tenet of Israelite and Jewish monotheism was that no human being could surviving seeing God (in this life); Moses’ encounter in Ex 33:20ff makes this clear (for a possible poetic echo of this motif, cf. Song 2:14). This theological point is emphasized especially in the Johannine literature: Jn 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12. However, there are other passages where chosen individuals are given a direct vision of God (Gen 32:30; Ex 24:10; and the prophetic visions 1 Kings 22:19; Isa 6:1-5; Amos 9:1; Ezek 1:1ff; Dan 7:9-22 [cf. Rev 1:12-16ff; 20:11ff]). In addition, there are references to Moses and others encountering God “face to face” (Exod 33:11; Num 12:8; 14:14; Deut 4:36; 5:4; 34:10; cf. also the expression in Judg 6:22; 1 Cor 13:12). For the metaphor of seeing God’s “face”, note in Gen 33:10; Isa 64:4, etc.

In the Old Testament, vision of God is intertwined with the idea of a divine appearance or manifestation (theophany), which usually takes place in the language and imagery of various natural phenomena (fire, wind, light, etc.)—Ex 3:4ff; 16:10; 19:16-25; Deut 5:24; Judg 6:22; 13:22; Ezek 1:1ff; 10:20; cf. also 1 Kings 19:11-13, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). In general terms, God also is said to have “appeared” to the Patriarchs and other saints (Gen 12:7; 17:1; 18:1; 35:9; Num 12:5). In the New Testament, God becomes visible in the Person of Jesus, as noted especially in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:14, 50-51; 12:45; 14:7ff).

So, on the one hand, God cannot be seen; on the other, he is seen. This has led to the theological distinction that God, in his essence, is invisible (cf. Deut 4:12; Rom 1:20; Col 1:15-16; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27), and can only be seen through an intermediary. Jewish tradition and theology, in particular, was uncomfortable with the idea of any personal theophany, attributing the Old Testament accounts (see above) to an angel or the hypostasized Word (memra) of God, rather than to YHWH himself (see Acts 7:38 for an instance of this in the New Testament). Christian theologians debated whether human beings in their unfallen state had a true vision of God, and whether even the blessed in Heaven could ever see God in His essence (cf. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae Part I Question 12; Question 94.a1; Part II:ii Question 173.a1; Part III suppl. Question 92).

A vision of God (or, at least, of His Glory) was an established element of eschatological hope throughout the religions of the ancient world. We see this expressed in Old Testament passages such as Job 19:26; Ps 98:3; Isa 35:2; 40:5; 52:10; 60:2; [Lk 2:30-32; 3:6]. In Greco-Roman religion and the mystery cults the promise of blessedness in the afterlife could also be expressed in terms of beatific vision, related to the purity of soul (e.g., in Plato, Phaedo 69; Plutarch, On the Cessation of Oracles 40, On the Delay of Divine Vengeance 22ff; On the Face appearing in the orb of the Moon p.943; Apuleius, Metamorphoses bk 11, etc). This language of eschatological promise pervades the New Testament (Mark 9:1 par; Jn 11:40; 17:24; Acts 22:14; 1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2; Rev 20:11ff; 22:4) and is certainly the primary emphasis in Matt 5:8—the one who is pure in heart will be found worthy to receive a vision of God Himself in the afterlife. It is worth noting that the future forms of the verb o)pta/nomai typically are used in an eschatological context in the New Testament (Mark 13:26; 14:62 par; Luke 3:6; 13:28; 17:22; Jn 1:50-51; 3:36; 16:16-22, etc).

However, the New Testament references also suggest an experience of the promise for believers now (in this life), which will only be realized fully in the life to come (see 1 Cor 13:12). This is understood first in terms of seeing God (the Father) in the person of Jesus (Jn 1:14, 50-51; 12:45; 14:7ff, also Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4ff). Fundamentally, then, it is experienced through the power and presence of the Spirit (of God and Christ), cf. Rom 8:9-16; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Gal 4:6; Eph 1:13-14; 2:22, etc). In an earlier article, I discussed the principal significance of the Beatitude—that the happy/blessed status of the righteous (believer) consists in sharing in the blessedness of God. Here vision is closely related to the idea of imitation (and even transformation), as Paul makes clear especially in 2 Cor 3:18.

The beatific paradox of God’s invisibility and our vision of Him was cherished and deeply felt by Christian mystics throughout the ages. Gregory of Nyssa holds these two aspects together in his Life of Moses II.152-158, 162-169, and esp. 219-255 (commenting on Exod 33:11, 20) and Sermon 6 On the Beatitudes (commenting on Matt 5:8). He states, in appropriately paradoxical fashion—

Kai\ tou=to/ e)stin o&ntw$ to\ i)dei=n to\n qeo\n, to\ mhde/pote th=$ e)piqumi/a$ ko/ron eu(rei=n
“And this is really to see God: not ever to find (one’s) fill of desiring (to see Him)”
This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see Him” (transl. Ferguson/Malherbe)
Life of Moses II.239