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Note of the Day – August 3 (Revelation 1:11-16)

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Revelation 1:9-20 (continued)

Revelation 1:11-16

In the previous note, I examined the introduction (vv. 9-10) to the first vision of the book of Revelation. Today, I will be discussing the vision itself, which as I noted, is presented as a theophany (i.e. manifestation of God). The figure who appears, and speaks to the seer John, though not specifically identified as Jesus Christ, is certainly to be understood as the rised/exalted Jesus. His appearance is described with both heavenly and divine characteristics, largely drawn from Old Testament tradition. Each of these will be discussed in turn:

1. “a great voice as a trumpet” (v. 10b)—cf. the previous note.

2. “and I turned about to see the voice that spoke with me” (v. 12a)—Here English translations tend to obscure what may well be an allusion to the Sinai theophany (Exod 20:18, cf. also Deut 4:12): “And all the people saw the voices…and the voice of the horn [i.e. trumpet]…” The plural “voices” refers to the sounds of thunder (i.e. thunder as the “voice” of God). Jewish tradition has explained this wording along the lines that the voice of God was so great as to seem visible to those who heard/witnessed it (cf. Philo Life of Moses II.213; On the Decalogue 46-47; Josephus Antiquities 1.285; 2. 267ff, etc; Koester, pp. 244-5ff, and for a number of the references below).

3. “seven golden lamp(stand)s” (v. 12b)—The author here repeats the verb e)pistre/yw (“turn upon/about”), adding dramatic suspense to his act of turning: “and, turning about, I saw…” These seven golden lamps are clearly parallel to the “seven Spirits” around God’s throne in verse 4 (cf. the earlier note), and again suggests that the manifestation of Jesus is very much like the manifestation of God himself. The most direct allusion is to Zechariah 4:2ff, where the lamps are explained as heavenly Messengers (“eyes”, v. 10b)—that is, Angels (“Spirits”)—but where there is also a connection with the presence of the Spirit of God (v. 6). The seven lamps may also allude to the golden lampstand, with seven branches, in the Tabernacle and (Second) Temple (Exod 25:31-40; 1 Macc 4:49-50; Josephus, Jewish War 5.217; the depiction on the Arch of Titus, etc).

4. “one like a son of man” (v. 13a)—This, of course, alludes to the famous description of the divine/heavenly being in Daniel 7:13-14 (also quoted earlier in verse 7 [cf. the note]):

“And see—with the clouds of heaven (one) like a son of man [vn`a$ rb^K=] was coming…”
LXX: “And see—upon the clouds of heaven (one) as a son of man [w($ ui(o\$ a)nqrw/pou] came…”

While the Greek version of Dan 7:13 uses the general particle w($ (“as”), the description here in Rev 1:13 is a bit more precise, using the adjective o%moio$ (“similar [to]”), emphasizing likeness. Originally, the expression “son of man” (Aram. vn`a$ rB^) simply meant “human (being)”, part of “(hu)mankind”; and, thus, the reference in Daniel is to a heavenly being who has the appearance of a human being. The use of the expression as a distinct title (“Son of Man”), referring specifically to such a divine/heavenly being, is fundamental to the early Christian understanding of Jesus, and of the eschatological outlook in the New Testament. For more on this topic, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. It is important to note that, while Dan 7:13f is the primary basis for the eschatological/Messianic title “Son of Man”, here the book of Revelation does not use the title, but goes back to the underlying wording in Daniel. The opening phrase “in the middle of the lampstands” emphasizes the centrality of Jesus, but also echoes the presence of God (and his throne) in the middle of the (surrounding) “seven Spirits”.

5. “a golden girdle [i.e. belt]” (v. 13b)—The initial description of this figure “like a son of man” refers to his clothing: “having been sunk in(to a garment) to the feet, and girded about toward the breasts (with) a golden girdle [i.e. belt]”. From a socio-cultural standpoint, this clothing indicates a high, honored/dignified status; possibly also a priestly status is suggested (cf. Exod 28:4-5; Zech 3:4, etc). It is best to view this clothing, with its golden belt, simply as characteristic of a heavenly being (Dan 10:5; cf. also Ezek 9:2f, and note again the description in Rev 15:6).

6. “his head and hairs were white as wool, white as snow” (v. 14a)—This would seem to be drawn from the description of God (the “Ancient of Days”) in Daniel 7:9 (cf. also 1 Enoch 46:1; 71:10). It may be intended to reflect the divine/heavenly generally (white symbolizing purity, etc), and could refer to a heavenly being (Angel) such as in 1 Enoch 106; however, the context of Dan 7:13, and the other parallels with the appearance of God (theophany), suggests a comparison with the “Ancient of Days” (Dan 7:9).

7. “his eyes (were) as a flame of fire” (v. 14b)—Again, this description would be characteristic of a heavenly/divine being (Dan 10:6; 1 Enoch 106:5f); the detail occurs again in 19:12.

8. “his feet (were) similar to white copper” (v. 15a)—The word xalkoli/banon refers to white[ned] (li/bano$) copper (xalko/$), i.e. refined/burnished bronze, “as (if) having been burned in a furnace”. It appears to be unique to the book of Revelation (also in 2:18), but is presumably derived from the description of the heavenly being in Dan 10:6. A shining fiery appearance at the feet (or below the feet) is also part of the manifestation of God (on his throne) in the language of theophany.

9. “his voice (was) as the sound of many waters” (v. 15b)—This image most likely comes from Ezekiel 1:24; 43:2, where it describes the approach of God (preceded and surrounded by heavenly beings). There is probably also an allusion to Daniel 10:6, as well as the thundering “voices” of God in the Sinai theophany (Exod 19:16; 20:18).

10. “he (was) holding…seven stars” (v. 16a)—These stars are being held in his right (lit. “giving”) hand, i.e. the hand or side indicating favor and blessing, as well as power and authority, etc. Power over the stars could be attributed to heavenly beings, but more properly relates to God as the Creator and sustainer of the heavens—i.e. God as the one who “causes the heavenly armies [i.e. bodies/beings] to be/exist” (toxb*x= hwhy). Verse 20 explains that the stars are, in fact, heavenly Messengers, connected with the seven congregations to whom the epistle-book of Revelation is addressed.

11. “out his mouth traveled a sharp two-mouthed sword” (v. 16b)—A two-edged (lit. “two-mouthed”, di/stomo$) sword was a military weapon, to be used for cutting/killing in battle (the “mouth” of the sword eats/consumes its victims). The image specifically relates to the traditional military role of the Messiah at the end-time (defeating/subduing the wicked nations), especially in the light of Isa 11:4 and 49:2, as these passages were given a Messianic interpretation. The idea of the “word of God” as a sword (Heb 4:12) presumably comes from the same background (esp. Isa 11:4 LXX, “the word of his mouth”). This military imagery is applied to Jesus more graphically in Rev 2:16; 19:15, 21.

12. “the sight of him (was) as the sun shining in its power” (v. 16c)—I have translated o&yi$ here as “sight”, i.e. “visual (appearance)”, but can specifically refer to the face, which is presumably intended here. The immediate Scriptural allusion is, again, to the heavenly figure in Dan 10:6, but, certainly, the sun (light, shining, etc) is a natural symbol for deity, and this is indicated by the qualifying phrase “in his/its power”.

This concludes the vision—that is the visual description—of the figure who appears to John. What follows in verses 17-20 are the words which the figure speaks. This will be discussed in the next daily note.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

Note of the Day – August 2 (Revelation 1:9-10)

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Revelation 1:9-20

Verse 9 introduces the first vision of the book of Revelation. It differs from the other visions and visionary cycles in that the seer is addressed directly by the risen/exalted Jesus, rather than a heavenly intermediary. It is, however, compatible with the subsequent vision-cycles, in that it also follows a seven-fold pattern. The vision is closely connected with the seven “letters” which follow in chapters 2-3—it is the risen/exalted Jesus of 1:9-20ff who addresses the seven congregations.

Insofar as the book of Revelation utilizes an epistolary (and rhetorical) framework, 1:9-20 could be regarded as the narratio—the section in which the facts and background of the case are narrated. This encompasses the “letters” in chaps. 2-3. The historical character of the section is certainly indicated from the initial declaration by the author:

Rev 1:9

“I, Yohanan, your brother and com(panion) together (with you) in the (di)stress, and (in) the kingdom and (our) remaining under [i.e. enduring] in Yeshua—(I) came to be in [i.e. on] the island called Patmos, through the word of God and the witness of Yeshua.”

This clearly establishes the setting for the visions of the book: a seer/prophet named Yohanan (Grk. )Iwa/nnh$, “John”) was residing on the island of Patmos. This small island, in the Aegean off the coast of Asia Minor (approx. 40 miles SW of Miletus, and not too far from Ephesus), was scarcely deserted, as might sometimes be imagined. There were communities living there, with a thriving culture. Even so, according to tradition, “John” was banished to Patmos, and many commentators would concur with this. The use of the verb form e)geno/mhn (“I came to be”) suggests that Patmos was not John’s normal place of residence. His reason for being there is explained as “through the word of God and witness of Yeshua”. This could be understood two ways: (1) it was for the purpose of preaching/witnessing (i.e. missionary activity), or (2) it was the result, or consequence, of his preaching/witnessing. The latter seems most likely (the reference to “the distress” suggests some measure of persecution); if so, then he may have been relegated to the island by provincial authorities (Roman province of Asia), according to a known mode of punishment (relegatio ad insulum). Christian tradition provides numerous speculative details on how/why John was relegated to Patmos. For more on the background/setting, related to Patmos, etc, consult any reputable Commentary (e.g., Koester, pp. 239-43) or Bible dictionary.

This is the third time that the author/visionary of the book is identified as Yohanan (“John”), and it is worth examining briefly several possibilities as to just who this “John” might be:

  • It is a pseudonym, presumably referring to John the Apostle
  • It is John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, in accordance with what came to be the established tradition
  • It is a different “Elder/Presybter” (presbu/tero$) named John, possibly the same person who authored the second and third Johannine letters (2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1)
  • It is a separate and distinct John, an influential minister (and/or prophet) in Asia Minor

Critical commentators today are not as inclined (as past generations) to view the book as pseudonymous, despite the fact that much Apocalyptic literature is pseudepigraphic in nature (cf. my earlier article on these terms). The book is generally lacking in the kinds of details and references one might expect if the author were presenting himself as a famous (apostolic) figure. Some Christians chose the third option above, identifying the author with a second-generation Elder/Presbyter named John (cf. Eusebius, Church History III.39.4-6; VII.24.7ff). However, the main lines of Christian tradition identified the author as John the Apostle, an identification which appears to have been reasonably well-established by the end of the 2nd century (cf. Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.11.1, 16.5ff; V.30.3; Clement On the Rich Man §42, etc).

The problem with the traditional view is that there is simply nothing in the book to suggest that this “John” is an Apostle and one of the Twelve (i.e. John the son of Zebedee)—indeed, Rev 21:14 could be seen as indicating the contrary. Thus, it is probably simpler (and safer) to rely upon the detail which the book itself provides—this “John” was a minister of some influence in Asia Minor (the area around Ephesus, etc), toward the end of the first century A.D., and may have been specially gifted as a prophet.

In discussing verse 2 (cf. the earlier note), I pointed out that there the genitive case in the twin expression “the word of God and the witness of Jesus” was subjective—that is, God is the one giving the word and Jesus is the one witnessing (to it). Now, however, in verse 9, the same expression occurs in a slightly different context, indicating that the genitive has switched to the object—i.e., the believer’s witness to Jesus, and the proclamation of the word/account (lo/go$) of what God has done (through the person of Jesus). Both of these aspects continue through the remainder of the book.

Rev 1:10

The introduction to the first vision continues with verse 10:

“I came to be in (the) Spirit, in [i.e. on] the day belonging (to) the Lord, and in back of me I heard a great voice as a trumpet (saying)…”

This description of the setting in vv. 9-10 involves three elements with the expression “I came to be in/on…” (e)geno/mhn e)n):

  • “on the island called Patmos” (location)
  • “in the Spirit” (condition)
  • “on the day belonging to the Lord” (time)

Central to this scenario is the detail that John was “in the Spirit” (e)n pneu/mati). This expression appears frequently in the New Testament, especially in Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters. It has a relatively wide range of significance, but often relates specifically to the prophetic aspect of God’s Spirit at work among his chosen people—cf. Mark 12:36; Luke 2:27; 4:1ff; 1 Cor 12:3ff; 14:2-3ff. The four occurrences in the book of Revelation (also at 4:2; 17:3; 21:10) are particularly important as they establish the spiritual basis—at four key points—for the prophetic legitimacy and authority of the visions. At each point, where there is a distinct change of setting in the visionary landscape, there is a note that this occurs “in the Spirit”. It is possible that the language itself may be drawing upon the book of Ezekiel (cf. 3:12; 8:3; 37:1; 43:5).

We should also here take note of the expression “on the day belonging to the Lord [e)n th=| kuriakh=| h(me/ra|]”. This “day belonging to the Lord”, using the adjective kuriako/$, occurs only here in the New Testament, but is found elsewhere in early Christian writings (Gospel of Peter 9:35; 12:50; Didache 14:1; Ignatius, Magnesians 9:1; Justin Martyr’s First Apology 67). It is typically translated “Lord’s Day”, and refers to Sunday, in association with the day of Jesus’ resurrection. However, we should also here recognize a deeper symbolism to the expression. The adjective kuriako/$ essentially means “belonging to the Lord [ku/rio$]”; and, while it is rare in the New Testament (elsewhere only at 1 Cor 11:20), in Greco-Roman usage it can relate to (Roman) imperial authority. Thus, it is likely that we have here a subtle, but significant, foreshadowing of the contrast, between the Kingdom of God and the (worldly) power of the Roman Empire, which is to become a major theme in the remainder of the book. Cf. Koester, p. 243.

Finally, which must consider the description which concludes the introduction in verse 10: “in back of me I heard a great voice as a trumpet”. In form, this seems to resemble Ezek 3:12 LXX, which is worth quoting:

“And the Spirit took me up, and down in back of me I heard (the) voice of a great shaking [i.e. earthquake] (saying)…”

Here the “great voice” is rather described “as a trumpet” (w($ sa/lpiggo$). In both Jewish (Old Testament) and early Christian tradition, the sounding of a trumpet often marks heavenly and eschatological phenomena (cf. Joel 2:1; Zech 9:14; Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16; and five more times in the book of Revelation, 4:1; 8:2, 6, 13; 9:14). In particular, a voice “like a trumpet” may be associated with the manifestation of God (Theophany), such as the famous appearance at Sinai—Exod 19:16; 20:18; Heb 12:19 (cf. also Psalm 47:5, etc). This is the first of several details in the vision which treat the appearance of the risen/exalted Jesus like a theophany. I list these here, to be discussed in more detail in the next daily note:

  • A great voice like a trumpet
  • The prophet turning to “see” the voice
  • The seven golden lamps
  • The white hair and fiery eyes
  • The shining/fiery appearance of the feet
  • The voice like the sound of rushing water
  • Holding (seven) stars in the right hand
  • Face shining like the sun

Note of the Day – August 1 (Revelation 1:7-8)

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Revelation 1:7-8

The introduction to the epistle-book of Revelation concludes with a pair of statements; the first is a Scriptural citation (by the author), and the second is a divine declaration repeating the triadic formula in verse 4 (cf. the previous note). We begin with the Scripture citation(s) in verse 7:

“See—he comes with the clouds, and every eye will look at him, even the (one)s who stabbed him (through), and they will beat (themselves) over him, all the (people)s arising (together out) of the earth. Yes, Amen.”

Two different Scripture passages are combined here:

  • Daniel 7:13:
    “And see! with the clouds of (the) heavens (one) like a son of man, coming (near), was (present)…”
    LXX: “And see—upon the clouds of heaven (one) as a son of man came…”
  • Zechariah 12:10 (along with v. 12)
    “…and they shall look closely [vb. fb^n`] to me whom they pierced [vb. rq^D*], and they shall wail (in mourning) upon [i.e. over] him, like (one) wailing upon th(eir) only (child)… ”
    LXX: “…and they will look (closely) toward me, against [i.e. concerning] the (one) whom they danced over [impl. vb. dq^r*], and they will beat (themselves) over him, as (one) beating (themselves) over a (be)loved (child)…”

The association of these two Scriptures is not original to the book of Revelation; we find it also in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ “Eschatological Discourse” (24:30). Both Scriptures were also connected, in different ways, with Jesus death (Mark 14:62 par; John 19:37), giving the Passion narrative an eschatological dimension, at least in part. It is easy to see how early Christians would have interpreted Zech 12:10 in terms of Jesus’ death, by crucifixion, which would entail the “piercing” of his hands and feet. In the original context, the reference seems to have that of one killed in battle (“pierced” or run through with a sword, etc). In this regard, the use of it in the Gospel of John is somewhat more applicable, as the author associates it with the puncturing of Jesus’ side by a soldier’s spear (19:34).

The precise significance of Zech 12:10 in the Gospel of John is uncertain. It is by no means clear that the author intends it in the same sense as Matt 24:30 or here in Rev 1:7. The purpose of the citation in Jn 19:37 is to show that the puncturing of Jesus’ side, with its release of “blood and water”, was the fulfillment of prophecy. Overall, however, though it is not emphasized in the Gospel of John, an eschatological interpretation of the passage for early Christians remains the most plausible. This is certainly how the author of the book of Revelation understands it. By compressing the citation to include part of verse 12, the author gives special emphasis to the visible appearance of Jesus (in glory) at the end-time. It is somewhat difficult to decide how the symbolism of mourning should be understood. The original context of the passage suggests that it refers to mourning for the death of someone; but this does not fit the application to the return of the risen/exalted Jesus. There are several possibilities:

  • Mourning over sin and wickedness (i.e. the connection of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin)—this entails the idea of repentance.
  • The people mourn over their role/responsibility for Jesus’ death—this may or may not indicate repentance. If the sense is that of mourning for Jesus’ sacrificial death on their behalf, then some measure of true repentance is in view.
  • The nations (“tribes of the earth”, not only the tribes of Israel), in their wickedness, mourn and lament over Jesus’ appearance which signifies the coming of God’s Judgment upon them.

Arguments can be made in favor of each of these, but it is the first (or some combination of the first two) which best seems to fit the context of the book. On the motif of the conversion of the nations, cf. Rev 5:5, 9; 7:9; 11:13; 21:24; 22:2 (Koester, p. 219).

The early Christian use of Daniel 7:13 will be addressed in upcoming articles of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”; I have already dealt with in some detail in an earlier study. Here it follows the Gospel Tradition, going back to the words of Jesus (Mark 13:26; 14:62 par) associating it with the end-time appearance of Jesus (the “Son of Man“).

As indicated above, verse 8 repeats the phrasing in v. 4, though here the three-fold divine title (in italics) is part of a declaration by God Himself:

“I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Alpha [a)] and the w@ [Omega], says the Lord God, the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming, the All-mighty.”

The use of e)gw/ ei)mi (“I am…”) is a standard component of divine revelation and manifestation (theophany), both in the Old Testament (LXX) and in other Greco-Roman literature. It can be traced back to the fundamental passage, introducing the name YHWH, in Exodus 3 (v. 14), being repeated numerous times in Scripture (e.g., Deut 32:39, etc). Especially noteworthy is the Prophetic usage, particularly in the book of Isaiah—cf. 43:25; 45:22; 46:9; 47:8ff; 51:12. The formula here is reasonably close in sense to that in Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12.

The use of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha [a] and omega [w]) functions as a comprehensive symbol—”first and last” (Isa 41:4, etc)—indicating both completeness and, we may assume, transcendence. God transcends all of creation (and time), encompassing and filling all things. It is also possible that there is here a play on the name YHWH (hw`hy+, Yahweh), which, in Greek transliteration, could be rendered Iaw, including both alpha and omega. Cf. Koester, p. 220.

Two other divine names/titles appear in this declaration, and are worth noting:

  • ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ (“[the] Lord God”)—This reflects the Hebrew conjunction of Yahweh (hwhy) and Elohim (<yh!ýa$), first appearing in Gen 2:4b, and subsequently many times in the Old Testament. It establishes the fundamental religious (and theological) principle that the Deity worshiped by Israel (YHWH) is the one true (Creator) God.
  • o( pantokra/twr (“the All-mighty”)—This title, combining pa=$ (“all”) and kra/to$ (“strength, might”), occurs 9 times in the book of Revelation, but only once (2 Cor 6:18) in the rest of the New Testament. It is known in Greek literature, as a divine attribute, essentially meaning (“ruler of all [things]”), and is relatively frequent in the Greek version (LXX) of the Old Testament. There it typically renders the expression toab*x=, part of an ancient (sentence) title, toab*x= hwhy—Yahweh as the one who “causes the heavenly armies to be”, i.e. creates all the heavenly bodies and beings.

Thus, the Hebrew background of both titles emphasizes God (YHWH) as the Creator of all things. We will want to keep this background in mind as we proceed to verses 9ff, and the divine attributes and titles which are given to the risen/exalted Jesus in first vision of the book.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Messianic Expectation

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Messianic Interpretation and Expectation in the New Testament

The very name and title Christ (Xristo/$), “Anointed”, signifies the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is the “Anointed One”, the Messiah (Heb. j^yv!m*). Early Christians generally followed Jewish tradition in their expectation of Messianic figures (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Deliverer), adopting many Scripture passages, which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense, and applying them to Jesus. We see this throughout the New Testament, and I have discussed the subject in considerable detail in my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“. The process, in fact, goes back to the earliest layers of Gospel Tradition and the words of Jesus himself.

However, Christians today, in considering the “Messianic” passages and prophecies in the Old Testament, tend not to view them as eschatological. This is due to the time (2,000 years, and counting) which has passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The various Scripture passages may be seen as prophecies of Jesus (his birth, death, resurrection, etc), but it is difficult to regard them as referring to the End Time per se. The situation was quite different for the earliest believers, for whom Messianic and Eschatological expectation were closely connected. According to the Jewish belief and tradition at the time, the coming of the Anointed One—any/all of the Messianic figure-types—was linked to the end of the current Age. Early Christians generally retained this outlook, though adapting it in several key ways due to the unique circumstances of Jesus’ life, and, especially, his death, resurrection, and departure to God the Father in heaven. As he did not fulfill many of the traditional Messianic roles during his lifetime, these would have to wait until his subsequent return, which was felt would take place very soon, and could occur at any time.

In order, then, to understand the eschatology of the New Testament, it is important to include, and emphasize, the Messianic expectation of early Christians. This will be discussed at various points in this series, but it will be helpful to begin with a survey of the Scripture passages which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense during the first centuries B.C./A.D., and which were applied to Jesus by early believers. As most of these have been examined in some detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, I will address them only briefly here. There are, of course, many other passages which were understood as prophecies concerning Jesus, but I include here only those which clearly were regarded as Messianic by at least some Israelites and Jews of the time.

The Key Passages

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel.

This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.

The same may be said of passages in the New Testament which contain a reference to “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 36 v.l. etc); in Jn 1:21-25, “the Prophet” seems to be understood as a separate figure from “Elijah”, possibly an indication that the Moses-tradition is involved. John the Baptist explicitly denies being “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21), but that Jesus was thought to be so by people on numerous occasions is indicated by several of the references above. In Acts 3:18-24 (sermon-speech of Peter), Jesus is identified specifically with the coming “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff (cf. also Acts 7:37). Within early Christian tradition, Jesus is identified or associated with Moses in a number of ways. For more on this, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Malachi 3:1ff; 4:5-6

The Messianic “Elijah tradition” derives from Malachi 3:1, combined with the explanatory interpretation of Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] which many scholars consider to be a (later) editorial gloss (see my supplementary note on the original context of Mal 3:1). In any case, already by the time of the completion of Malachi (and, presumably, the collection of the Twelve Prophets [Hosea–Malachi] as a whole), the “Messenger” [Ea*l=m^] of Mal 3:1 was identified as Elijah, who will (re)appear just prior to the “Day of YHWH” to bring repentance to people before the Judgment. Over time, this belief was given greater eschatological emphasis—”Elijah” would appear at the end-time, prior to the last Judgment—expressed already in Sirach 48:10 (early-mid 2nd century B.C.). Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, evidence for this belief at Qumran is rather slight, though it is attested in the fragmentary 4Q558 (fragment 1), but is perhaps reflected more prominently in a text such as 4Q521 (cf. below). Evidence for this tradition is found specifically in Mark 9:11-13 (Matt 17:10-12), the citations and allusions to Mal 3:1; 4:5-6 in Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; Matt 11:10-14, and may be inferred from other references listed below. Also worth noting is Sibylline Oracles 2:187ff (Christian expansion/adaptation of earlier Jewish material).

While Christians came to apply this Messianic figure to John the Baptist, there is some evidence in the earlier strands of Gospel Tradition that people also identified Jesus with the Prophetic figure-type. Indeed, Jesus is connected with Elijah in various ways in the Gospels. For a discussion of this subject, again cf. “Yeshua the Anointed” (Parts 2 and 3).

Psalm 2 (esp. verse 7-9)

This Psalm, drawing upon the ancient religious symbolism of the king as God’s “son” (vv. 7ff), was applied to Jesus at a very early stage of Christian belief. There are allusions to it in the account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11 par), and the voice from heaven actually quotes it in some manuscripts of Luke 3:22. More commonly, it was associated with Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation) in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:33, cf. Rom 1:4 etc); the author of Hebrews continues to use it this way (1:5; 5:5), though, by this point, the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence and eternal Sonship was also in view. The overall context of the Psalm (vv. 1-2ff) fit the Messianic portrait, and was applied to Jesus as well (Acts 4:25-28, cf. also Luke 22:66-23:25).

2 Samuel 7:8-16 (cf. also 2 Sam 22:44-51 / Ps 18:44-51, and Psalm 89:3-4, 9-37ff)

The narrative in 2 Samuel 7, with the oracle by the prophet Nathan, is the primary Scripture passage which established the Messianic association with David—i.e., a ruler from the line of David who would appear at the end-time. Together with Psalm 2 (cf. above), it allowed the idea of the Messianic ruler-figure to be identified as “Son of God”. In Jewish tradition, this is best exhibited in the so-called Florilegium (4Q174) from Qumran, which blends together Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 (along with other passages) in what is clearly both a Messianic and eschatological context. Another key Qumran text is the Aramaic 4Q246 (i. 9, ii. 1) with its striking parallels to Luke 1:32-35. There would seem to be references to Psalm 89 in 4Q252, and also (possibly) the fragmentary 4Q458. Important allusions are also to be found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st century B.C.). For more on the Davidic ruler figure-type, and the title “Son of God”, cf. Parts 6-8 and 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Psalm 110:1-4

The opening verse(s) of this Psalm were central to early Christian understanding of Jesus as both the Messianic (Davidic) ruler and “Son of God”. It also was enormously influential in establishing the title “Lord” (ku/rio$), in a divine sense, for Jesus. As in the case of the title “Son of God” in Psalm 2:7, verse 1 of Psalm 110 was associated primarily with the resurrection of Jesus, following which he was exalted to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. The verse is quoted specifically in this context in Acts 2:34-35, but there are certainly allusions to it throughout the New Testament (Mark 14:62 par; [16:19]; Acts 2:25; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22, etc). The author of Hebrews quotes it, along with Psalm 2:7 (vv. 5ff), in 1:13, where the idea of divine pre-existence is also present (cf. also 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).

Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 in a definite Messianic context (Mark 12:36ff par), making it all but certain that Jews at the time were interpreting it this way. However, contemporary evidence for this is slight indeed. The Qumran text 11QMelchizedek [11Q13], drawing upon traditions regarding Melchizedek (in a Messianic context), would suggest some dependence on Psalm 110, but there are no specific quotations or allusions in the surviving fragments. The interpretation of the figure Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, relying heavily upon Psalm 110, also suggests that there were significant interpretative traditions, perhaps Messianic in nature, which might have been familiar to Jews and Christians of the time. It is also possible that Psalm 110 was influential in shaping the distinctive Messianic tradition, best seen in certain of the Qumran texts, of an Anointed Priestly figure, with a blending of royal and priestly characteristics.

Psalm 118:26

The fact that this verse is quoted both by Jesus (Matt 23:39; Luke 13:35), and by the crowds at his “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem (Mark 11:9 par), suggests that it was understood in a Messianic sense by Jews at the time. However, corresponding contemporary evidence outside of the New Testament is extremely slight. It would have related to the same (Davidic) royal figure-type discussed above.

Isaiah 9:1-6

This passage, along with 7:10-14ff (cf. Matt 1:22-23), came to be interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (cf. Luke 2:11). Matthew specifically quotes Isa 9:1-2 as a way of introducing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (4:14-16). The characteristics of a special royal birth, as well as the message of (future) promise, made Isa 9:1-6 a natural candidate for Messianic interpretation; however, there is little evidence for this in contemporary Jewish writings. Perhaps the closest example is the allusion to verse 6 in the Qumran Hymn 1QH 3.

Micah 5:2-4

Likewise, there is little contemporary evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:2-4, though it is an obvious candidate. The context of Matthew 2:1-6ff makes no real sense if a Messianic understanding of this passage were not in existence among Jews in the 1st century B.C./A.D.

Amos 9:11

This verse is given a Messianic interpretation in both the Damascus Document (CD 7:14-21) and the Qumran Florilegium (4Q174 3-4). This helps to establish the background of its use in the speech of James (Acts 15:15-18), where it is quoted in very different sense, though still retaining something of a traditional Messianic (and eschatological) context.

Zechariah 9:9-10

The use of this passage, with its royal symbolism and eschatological orientation, in the Gospels, at the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus (Mark 11:2-10 par, with a specific citation in Matt 21:4-5 and John 12:14-15), would indicate that it may have been understood as a traditional Messianic passage. However, there is little or no contemporary Jewish evidence to support this. Moreover, the singular importance which Zech 9-14 holds in the Gospel Tradition, and the influence it had on shaping the (Passion) narrative, increases the likelihood that this is a uniquely Christian interpretation. This will be addressed a bit further in the upcoming articles.

Daniel 7:13-14; 9:24-27

These important eschatological (and Messianic) passages, so influential for Jews and early Christians both, will be discussed in detail in the upcoming articles.

The Servant Songs of Isaiah

Special attention must be given to the “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah (so-called “Deutero-Isaiah”), usually delineated by four passages: Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. Only the first and last of these played a central role in early Christian belief. However, it is worth noting that the Isaian “Servant” figure came to be understood and interpreted in a Messianic (or quasi-Messianic) sense by Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. The extent of this is indicated, not only by the many (and various) allusions (in the Dead Sea texts, etc), but by the way in which the thought and language of these passages has shaped and colored the texts themselves.

A good example of this may be found in the Qumran Hymns (1QH), especially those which are often attributed to the “Teacher of Righteousness”, an historical (but at least partly Messianic) figure with certain parallels to Jesus (cf. Part 4 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In these hymns, the speaker repeatedly refers to himself as God’s servant (db#u#)—cf. Hymns IV. 11, 23ff; V. 24; VI. 8, 11, 25; VIII. 19, 21, 23ff; XIII. 15, 28; XV. 16; XVII. 11; XVIII. 29; XIX. 27, 30, 33; XXII. 16; XXIII. 6, 10 (Blenkinsopp, pp. 270-2). There are numerous allusions to the Servant songs, and related Isaian passages, throughout (cf. below).

Isaiah 42:1-9

It is verse 1 which has been most influential for Messianic thought:

“See, my servant—I hold on(to) him, my chosen (one whom) my soul favors; I have given my Spirit upon him, (and) he shall cause justice/judgment to come forth for the nations.”

The words in italics are particularly noteworthy. First, the substantive adjective yr!yj!B= (“my chosen [one]”), rendered in Greek as o( e)klekto/$ mou. This title is parallel, in many ways, with “my anointed [j^yv!m*] (one)”, and can serve as similar Messianic title, as is clear from texts such as the (fragmentary) Qumran 4Q534. There is unquestionably an allusion to Isa 42:1 in the words spoken by the voice from heaven in the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes (Mark 1:11 par; Matt 17:5 par). In the Lukan version of the latter (according to the best manuscript evidence) we read:

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [e)klelegme/no$, i.e. chosen]…” (9:35)

Similarly, in the Johannine description of the Baptism, we have the Baptist’s declaration (corresponding to the heavenly voice in the Synoptics):

“…this is the Son of God” (1:34)
though in some MSS the reading is:
“…this is the (one) gathered out [e)klekto/$, i.e. chosen one] of God”

In the New Testament, both the verb e)kle/gw (“gather out”) and the related noun e)klekto/$ are typically used in reference to believers, not Jesus. This suggests that the Gospel usage in such passages where it is applied to Jesus (cf. Luke 23:35) reflects early (Messianic) tradition.

On the second italicized portion above, cf. the discussion on Isa 61:1ff further below.

Isaiah 49:1-6

This Servant Song appears to have influenced Messianic thought and expression at two points: (1) the idea of a sword coming out of the Servant’s mouth (v. 2), and (2) the twin themes of restoration and salvation in v. 6. On the first point, the idea of the sword from the mouth overlaps with the (Messianic) portrait in Isa 11:4 (cf. below); there is an apparent allusion to this in Revelation 1:16 (cf. also Heb 4:12). It is possible that there is a general (Messianic) reference to verse 2 in the Qumran text 1QSb (5:23f).

The theme of the restoration of Israel in verse 6 certainly fits the main contours of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) thought, even though it is difficult to find contemporary use of the verse to support this. Early Christians, however, understood it in this light, including the second half of the verse, indicating that the Servant will be made “a light to the nations” (cf. Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47).

Isaiah 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

These two songs introduce the theme of the Servant’s suffering, which early on was interpreted by believers as referring to the suffering and death of Jesus. The famous “Suffering Servant” passage in 52:13-53:12 is central to episode recorded in Acts 8:32-35 (and note the interesting critical question by the Ethiopian official in v. 34). In the Gospels, it is cited directly only at Matt 8:17, in the context of Jesus’ healing miracles, not his death. However, the passage likely influenced the way that the Passion narrative was told and understood, corresponding (rather clearly) in certain details to Isa 53:3-9. The identity of this Servant figure in Isaiah, in terms of its original context, continues to be debated by scholars and commentators.

There is relatively little evidence for the use of Isa 52:13-53:12 at Qumran; unfortunately, the surviving portions of the Commentary (pesher) on Isaiah do not cover 52:13-53:12. Nor would there seem to be any evidence for these Scriptures being interpreted in a Messianic sense prior to their use in the New Testament. The closest we find to a Messianic interpretation would appear be an allusion to Isa 53:3-5, 11-12 in the Qumran text 4Q491c (line 9), which is thought to be related to the Hodayot hymns (1QH) in some way (cf. 1QH 7:10; 8:26-27, 35-36; 9; Blenkinsopp, pp. 278-9ff). There is also an allusion to Isa 52:7 in 11QMelchizedek [11Q13] 2.16, where there is a connection with a Messianic interpretation of Isa 61:1ff, etc (cf. below).

In many ways, the emphasis on the suffering of the Messiah is uniquely applicable to Jesus. Early Christians had to explain how, and why, the Messiah would endure such suffering and the shameful death of crucifixion. This came to be an important point of emphasis in the Gospel Tradition (Mark 14:21, 49 par; Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:25-26, 44-46), and the earliest (Jewish) Christian missionaries (such as Paul) would have to work hard to establish a sound Scriptural basis for such an idea (cf. Acts 5:42; 9:22; 13:26ff; 17:3; 18:5, 28, etc). Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is one of the only passages in the Old Testament which could be cited in this regard. For more on the idea of the suffering and death of Jesus, in a Messianic context, cf. Part 11 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as a supplementary article on the subject.

Other Passages

There are several key Messianic passages which are surprisingly absent from the New Testament; two of these are—Genesis 49:10, part of the blessing of Jacob over his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12), and Numbers 24:17-19, in Balaam’s fourth oracle (vv. 15-24). Both of these passages use the word tb#v@ (“stick, staff”), as a symbol of rule (i.e. “scepter”), and this came to be an important Messianic motif, in texts such as the Damascus Document (CD) 7:19-20 (= 4Q266 3 iv.9), and 1QSb 5:27-28; 1QM 11:6-7; 4Q161 ii 19; 4Q521 2 iii. 6, etc, at Qumran. Numbers 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic prophecy in the Qumran texts, with both “star” and “staff” serving as key symbols (CD 7:19-20; 4Q175 12, etc). Yet, this Scripture is not cited in the New Testament, though it may, possibly, form part of the background of the Star/Magi episode in Matthew 2. Somewhat later in time, but presumably reflecting older traditions, Num 24:17ff does appear as a Messianic prophecy in the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), and was famously applied to the quasi-Messianic revolutionary leader Ben-Kosiba (“Bar-Kokhba” = “Son of the Star”), cf. j. Ta’anit 68d.

The relative absence of Isaiah 11:1-9 in the New Testament is also a bit surprising, since this passage, along with Psalm 2, would be extremely influential in the development of the Davidic Ruler figure-type. The prophecy begins with the declaration “A branch [rf#j)] will go out from the stem of Jesse, a fresh/green (sprout) [rx#n@] will grow (out) from his roots”. These words and phrases became foundational motifs for beliefs regarding the coming Davidic ruler in Messianic thought. In particular, this passage associated the Davidic ruler with the defeat/subjugation of the nations and the end-time Judgment. Here also we find the idea of Judgment (vv. 3-4) followed by a new Age of peace (vv. 6-9), common to much Messianic thought.

Among the many texts in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. which draw upon Isa 11:1ff, we may note the Qumran (pesher) commentary on Isaiah (4QpIsaa [4Q161] 11-12), as well as 1QSb 5:23ff, and important allusions in 4Q285 and 4Q534. The classic portrait of the militant Davidic ruler is found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st cent. B.C.), and also features prominently in the 13th chapter of 2/4 Esdras (mid-late 1st cent. A.D.). It is perhaps this militant character of the Messiah which kept it from being applied to Jesus by early Christians; Paul does allude to verse 4b in 2 Thess 2:8, in a clear eschatological context. In relation to Jesus, more appropriate to the Gospel portrait, we may note the reference to the Spirit of YHWH resting upon him (v. 2a, cf. Isa 61:1, below).

The Davidic promise is given new form in the oracles of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the historical context of the fall of Judah and the Babylonian exile. Jer 23:5ff declares that God will raise for David “a righteous sprout [qyD!x* jm^x#]” who will rule as king. The same expression and message is found in Jer 33:14-16ff. That these prophecies point to the future, in contrast to the historical circumstances in the prophet’s own time, is indicated by the surrounding context (cf. Jer 22:30; 33:19-26). In Ezekiel 34:23-24, there is a similar promise that God raise up for Israel “one shepherd, my servant David”; cf. also Ezek 37:24-25. In the early post-Exilic period, Zerubbabel appears to have been seen as a fulfillment of the restoration of Davidic rule (Haggai 2:21-24; Zechariah 4:6-14, cf. also 3:8; 6:11-14). Ultimately, of course, the true fulfillment had to wait for a future coming King, as indicated in the (later) oracle Zech 9:9-10ff. All of these passages formed part of the fabric of Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

Isaiah 61:1ff

Of all the Messianic passages, regarded as such at the time, it is perhaps that of Isaiah 61:1ff which best fits the Gospel portrait of Jesus, especially during the time of his earthly ministry. In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus quotes vv. 1-2, and alludes to them again in 7:22 (“Q” par Matt 11:5). Thus, during his ministry (in Galilee), the Messianic figure with whom Jesus specifically identifies himself is the anointed Prophet/Herald of Isa 61. Luke’s positioning of the episode at Nazareth, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, almost certainly is meant to draw a connection between the Spirit-anointing of Isa 61:1 and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (3:22 par). Following the baptism, Jesus moves about in the guidance and power of the Spirit (4:1, 14).

The phrase “in the power of the Spirit” is probably meant to indicate Jesus’ own Prophetic status (cf. Lk 1:17; Acts 10:38)—specifically as an Anointed Prophet. Even though the noun jyv!m* [m¹šîaµ] / xristo/$ [christós], is not used in Isa 61:1 (rather it is the verb jv^m* / e&xrisen), this verse does seem to have been extremely influential toward the idea of a Messianic Prophet. The figure in Isa 61:1ff certainly does not appear to be a king or ruler of the Davidic mold, nor a priest, but rather a prophet like Isaiah himself. It describes a herald who announces a message of good tidings (in Hebrew, literally “fresh” tidings) to the poor and oppressed.

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there is evidence that Isa 61:1ff was already being understood in an eschatological sense, with the anointed figure of verse 1 identified as a Prophet-Messiah. This is seen most clearly in the Qumran text 4Q521, where in fragment 2 (column ii, line 1) we read: “…[the heav]ens and the earth will listen to [i.e. obey] his Anointed (One)”. What follows in lines 2-14 etc is a blending of Isa 61:1ff and Psalm 146; but the idea of heaven and earth obeying God’s Anointed is suggestive of a Prophet in the manner of Elijah who “shut up the heavens” so that it would not rain and brought down fire from heaven (1 Kings 17:1ff; Sirach 48:2-3; James 5:17); Jesus of course exhibited a similar authority over the elements (Mark 5:35-41; 8:45-52 pars). Moreover, in column iii of fragment there is an allusion to Mal 4:5-6 and the (end-time) role of Elijah in bringing people to repentance.

Isaiah 40:1-5

Finally, we should note the famous prophecy in Isa 40:1-5 (esp. verses 3ff), which was foundational for the religious self-identity of both the Qumran Community and the earliest Christians. For the Community of the Qumran texts, the key passage is in the Community Rule (1QS) 8:14-15f, where Isa 40:3 is cited and applied to the Community. The association of the same verse with John the Baptist and his ministry (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; John 1:23; cf. also Luke 1:17, 76 and the connection with Mal 3:1ff) has, among other factors, led a number of scholars to posit some sort of relationship between John and the Qumran Community. For early Christians, it is likely that Isa 40:3 influenced the use of “(followers of) the Way” as a self-designation (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

It should be noted that the use of Isa 40:3-5 in the Gospel Tradition, and among early Christians, is Messianic only in a special, qualified sense. For the most part, early believers identified the herald (“one crying out [in the desert]”), like the Messenger of Mal 3:1ff, with John the Baptist, rather than Jesus. And, while it is likely that some Jews at the time regarded John as a Messianic figure (Jn 1:19-27; 3:26-30, etc), the issue quickly disappeared from Christian thought. The twin passages of Isa 40:3-5 and Mal 3:1ff were interpreted, not in the original context of a chosen (Messianic) Prophet/Herald appearing before the coming of the Lord (YHWH), but in terms of John the Baptist preparing the way before the coming of the Lord (Jesus).

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Eerdmans: 2006).

Note of the Day – July 31 (Revelation 1:4-6)

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Revelation 1:4-6

Verses 4-6 represent the standard greeting of the epistolary introduction. The author, already mentioned in verse 1, introduces himself and addresses his audience:

“Yohanan, to the seven (gatherings of believer)s in Asia (that are) called out (to assemble): Favor and Peace to you from the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming, and from the seven Spirits which (are) in the sight of His throne, and from Yeshua (the) Anointed, the trust(worthy) witness, the first-produced of the (ones who are) dead, and the chief (ruler) of the kings of the earth.” (vv. 4-5a)

The author identifies himself by the Hebrew name Yohanan (/n`j*oy), transliterated in Greek ( )Iwa/nnh$) and Anglicized as “John”. Traditionally, this person as been equated with John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, with the ‘Johannine’ Gospel and Letters being similarly ascribed to him. However, the Gospel and Letters are actually anonymous, and, indeed, as I have discussed previously (cf. my recent note) there are certain indications that the letters were not written by an Apostle. Only in the book of Revelation does the name “John” appear as author or source of the writing. However, nowhere is he identified as John the Apostle; in fact, here, too, there is evidence indicating that the author was not an Apostle. This will be discussed further in the note on verse 9.

John addresses his epistle-book to Christians in seven cities in Asia (the Roman province of Asia [Minor]), the same cities to whom the “letters” in chapters 2-3 are addressed. The word e)kklhsi/a, in its distinctive early Christian usage, is perhaps best rendered “congregation”, but I have given it an excessively literal (glossed) translation above, so as to capture its basic meaning. It is derived from the verb e)kkale/w (“call out”), and typically refers to citizens, or members of a community, who are summoned (“called out”) to public assembly. However, in Greco-Roman society, e)kklhsi/a appears rarely to have been used for religious assemblies or associations. This particular Christian usage stems largely from the idea of the corporate assembly (lh^q^) of the people Israel in Old Testament tradition. Almost certainly, there is also an allusion to believers being chosen (i.e. “called”) by God, whereby the connotation of the verb e)kkale/w (“call out”) blends with that of e)kle/gw (“gather out”, i.e. “choose”).

There is unquestionably a religious context to the greeting, as in most of the letters in the New Testament, where the “favor” (xa/ri$) and “peace” (ei)rh/nh) comes from God and Christ (together), being invoked as a kind of blessing upon the believers who are addressed (cf. Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Philem 3; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2). Note the dual-formula, in the uniquely expanded form it occurs here in the book of Revelation:

  • from (a)po/) the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming [i.e. the Living God] —and from the seven Spirits which (are) in the sight of His throne
  • from (a)po/) Yeshua (the) Anointed, the trust(worthy) witness…

At first glance, it might seem that this is a three-fold formula, with the “seven Spirits” as a source of blessing parallel to God and Jesus; but this would probably be incorrect. It is best to view the phrase “and from the seven Spirits…” as subordinate to the Living God who sits on the throne. There is, however, a kind of synonymous parallelism between God and Jesus, which needs to be emphasized (cf. below).

Instead of the more traditional “God the Father”, here we have the peculiar triadic phrase in italics above:

o( w*n kai\ o( h@n kai\ o( e)rxo/meno$

The initial title o( w&n (“the [One] being [i.e. existing/living]”) derives primarily from Exodus 3:14 [LXX]: e)gw/ ei)mi o( w&n (“I am the [One] being/existing”)—cf. further, Josephus Antiquities 8.350; Philo Life of Moses I.75; Allegorical Interpretation III.181. However, there are also parallels in Greco-Roman literature, including a similar three-fold description of Deity which encompasses past, present, and future (e.g., Homer Iliad 1.70; Hesiod Theogony 1.38; Plutarch Moralia 354C); especially noteworthy is the triadic formula in Pausanias (Description of Greece 10.12.10), “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus shall be” (cf. Koester, p. 215).

The elegant customary translation, “the one who is and who was and who is to come”, glosses over the difficulty of the Greek syntax. The phrase is actually comprised of two articular participles, with an indicative verb (+ article) in between:

  • “the [one] being” (o( w&n)
  • “the [one who] was” (o( h@n)
  • “the [one] coming” (o( erxo/meno$)

Rhythmically, it is appealing, but grammatically it is quite awkward. The use of the definite article with an indicative verb (literally, “the was”) is strange indeed. Also unusual is the fact that there is no case inflection following the preposition a)po/ (“from”), as though the expressions, being Divine titles, were undeclinable. I would suggest that this phrase (repeated in verse 8 and 4:8, and echoed again in 11:17; 16:5) be understood in three ways:

  1. In the traditional sense of comprehensive existence—past, present, future.
  2. As a chiastic formula, in which the two participial expressions emphasize the eternal Life and Being possessed by God:
    —”the One being/existing”
    —”the One coming (to be)”
    With the indicative verb reflecting God’s presence and action in history.
  3. In an historical sense:
    (i) “the One being”—eternal existance
    (ii) “the One who was”—(past) manifestation in history
    (iii) “the One coming”—i.e. (present/future) coming to bring Judgment and to deliver His people

With regard to the “seven Spirits [pneu/mata]” in the presence (lit. “in the sight”) of God’s throne, these are best understood as heavenly beings (i.e. ‘Angels’), as I discussed in a previous note. The throne of God, emphasizing kingship and (royal) power, features prominently in Apocalyptic writings, and, often in such visionary literature, a description of the throne and its (heavenly) surroundings is included. There are specifically seven Angels mentioned in Tobit 12:15 and 1 Enoch 20:1-7. Of course, seven, as a symbolic number, representing completeness, etc, is especially frequent in the book of Revelation. Clearly, there is a thematic connection between these seven “Spirits” and the seven congregations of the greeting and the subsequent letters in chapters 2-3.

The blessing invoked by the author comes from God (the Father), but also, equally, from Jesus Christ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed”). On the particular title Xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”), here used as a virtual second name of Jesus (according to established Christian convention), see my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“. As in the case of God, Jesus is also referred to with a three-fold expression (drawn from Psalm 89, especially vv. 19-37):

  • “the trust(worthy) witness” (Ps 89:37)—We typically do not tend to think of Jesus as a witness (it is believers who do the witnessing), but this characteristic was certainly applied to him by early Christians, and appears frequently in the Gospel of John. It was already used in verse 1 (cf. the previous note), in the expression “the witness of Jesus Christ”, which, as I discussed, does not mean witness about Jesus, but rather witness by Jesus (subjective genitive).
  • “the first-produced of the dead” (Ps 89:27a)—The adjective prwto/toko$ is often translated “firstborn”, but literally means “first-produced“, as of a plant coming up out of the ground. Here, it has nothing whatever to do with Jesus as the (pre-existant) Son of God (in a Johannine or Nicene sense), but, rather, relates specifically to his resurrection from the dead (i.e. of those who are dead). The adjective is used in this sense in Romans 8:29 (see v. 23); Col 1:18 (cp. verse 15); and cf. also Heb 12:23. This association is explained clearly in Acts 26:23. Jesus himself touches on the imagery in the beautiful illustration of Jn 12:24.
  • “the chief (ruler) of the kings of the earth” (Ps 89:27b)—This reflects the standard Messianic association, by which early Christians applied the Davidic ruler figure-type to Jesus. Again, the earliest Christian preaching connected this precisely (if not exclusively) with his resurrection and exaltation to heaven (Acts 2:24ff, 36, etc). However, it was also in his exaltation (to God’s right hand) that Jesus possessed a status virtually identical to that of God the Father, sharing his kingly rule (as Son and Heir). In early Christian thought, Jesus’ Sonship was defined primarily in terms of the resurrection (cf. Acts 13:33f; Rom 1:4; Heb 5:5ff). The book of Revelation expresses this in a most distinctive way, as we shall see.

The concluding portion of the greeting switches to a declaration of praise—to both God and Christ, though it is primarily the latter who is being addressed, as the wording indicates:

“To the (one) loving us and loosing us out of our sins, in his blood, and (so that) he made us (to be) a kingdom, sacred officials [i.e. priests] to his God and Father—to him be honor and strength into the Ages [of the Ages]. Amen.” (vv. 5b-6)

That Jesus’ death (his blood) served as a sacrificial offering which brought release (and/or cleansing) from sin, is a central tenet of Christian belief, expressed numerous times in the New Testament. There are several striking references among the relevant passages in the Johannine writings—Jn 1:29; 6:51, 53ff; (19:34); 1 Jn 1:7, 9; 2:2; 3:5; 4:10; 5:6, 8. As we shall see, this is also a theme that features prominently in the book of Revelation. It should be noted that some manuscripts read “washing us” instead of “loosing us”, understanding the verb to be lou/w rather than lu/w. This appears to be a ‘correction’, since the idea of washing (i.e. cleansing from sin) better fits the natural image of blood (and cf. the usage in 1 Jn 1:7, etc). However “loosing” is almost certainly correct, and reflects a different, primary aspect of Christ’s sacrificial work—loosing us from debt/bondage to sin. A similar idea, in relation to sin, is expressed by the verb a)fi/hmi (“set [free] from, release”), often translated in this context as “forgive”.

The idea that believers in Christ constitute a kingdom—i.e. the kingdom of God, ruled by Christ—appears many times in the New Testament, usually in terms of receiving or inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor 15:50; 1 Thess 2:12; 2 Thess 1:5; Col 1:13; Heb 12:28; James 2:5, etc). The twin concept of believers as priests of God is specifically drawn from ancient Israelite/Old Testament tradition (Exod 19:6; cf. also Isa 61:6). We find this also occasionally in the New Testament (1 Pet 2:5, 9; cf. also Rom 12:1; 15:16; 2 Cor 3:6ff, etc).

The praise and “glory” (do/ca, esteem/honor) here accorded to Jesus is precisely that which is given to God, and this a most important theological (and Christological) emphasis in the book. We will be exploring this further in the notes on verses 9-20. However, first it is necessary to examine the final portion of the epistolary introduction—the declarations in vv. 7 and 8—which we will do in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – July 30 (Revelation 1:3)

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Revelation 1:3

The first two verses of the superscription were discussed in the previous note; today we will be looking at the declaration in verse 3:

“Happy the (one) making (this) known (in the reading of it), and (also) the (one)s hearing the words [lo/goi] of th(is) foretelling [i.e. prophecy] and watching (over) the (thing)s having been written in it, for the time is near.”

This is properly a beatitude (or macarism), much like the famous set of Beatitudes uttered by Jesus in the Gospel Tradition (Matt 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23). For the background of the beatitude form, see the article in my earlier series on the Beatitudes. At the conclusion of that series, I also provided a brief survey of the other beatitudes which occur in the New Testament.

According to the standard Greek formula, this beatitude begins with the adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”), often rendered as “blessed”, in light of the religious context which is typically involved. On the eschatological aspect of the beatitude form, again cf. the introductory articles of my earlier series.

Often obscured in translation is the fact this beatitude is addressed to two different groups: (1) the person(s) reading the book, and (2) the ones hearing it and guarding its contents. These two groups are marked by parallel participles, which reflect the circumstances of early Christian life and worship:

  • o( a)naginw/skwn—”the one [sg.] making (this) known (in the reading of it)”
  • oi( a)kou/onte$kai\ throu=nte$—”the ones [pl.] hearing…and watching (over)”

The verb a)naginw/skw literally means “know again”, though the prefixed particle a)na is perhaps better understood as an intensive, i.e. “know (something) well”—i.e. through the reading of a written text. In the early Christian context, “reading” meant public reading—that is, reading aloud or reciting the text. In the ancient world literacy rates were far lower than in modern societies; moreover, the average Christian would likely not have possessed a copy (of the Scriptures, etc) for private reading, but would have relied upon hearing it read aloud in the congregation. This is precisely the situation envisioned here by the author.

The use of the verbs a)kou/w (“hear”) and thre/w (“[keep] watch [over]”) together reflects standard instruction, which, in the case of early Christians, goes back to Old Testament tradition regarding the Torah (Instruction) as the written word of God (cf. especially the foundational covenant scene in Exodus [19:7-8; 20:19; 24:3-4a, 7, etc]). The parallel use of these verbs, and the twin concepts of hearing and keeping/guarding, is especially prominent in the Johannine writings (Jn 5:24f; 8:47, 51; 12:47; 14:15, 21ff; 15:10, 20; 1 Jn 1:1ff; 2:3-5, 7, 24; 3:22-24; 5:3; 2 Jn 6). It is possible that the similar usage in the book of Revelation stems from a common tradition. The verb a)kou/w occurs 46 times in the book, while thre/w 11 times (including 5 times in the “letters” of chapters 2-3). In the specific context of 1:3, the verb thre/w relates, not so much to idea of obeying God’s instruction, but to guarding and protecting the record of the visions in the book. Most likely, there is a two-fold aspect to this watching/guarding: (a) paying close attention to the account and details of the visions, and (b) protecting it from misuse and misrepresentation. This latter aspect should serve as a caution for all those attempting to interpret the book today.

The content of the book is specifically referred to as “the words/accounts [lo/goi] of the th(is) foretelling”. This is the first of 7 occurrences of the Greek term profhtei/a (proph¢teía), which is typically transliterated in English as “prophecy”. As I discussed in the Introduction to the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, there are two basic meanings to the profht- word group, in relation to the prefixed particle pro (“before”): (1) a message presented before (i.e. in front of) an audience by a chosen spokesperson, and (2) a message which tells of (future) events beforehand. Both aspects apply to the use of these words among early Christians, though emphasis in the New Testament, when dealing with early Christian congregations, is decidedly on the former. Here in the book of Revelation, we certainly find both aspects:

  • The visions in the book are clearly described as “the word of God” and “the witness of Jesus”—a revelation which was given to the prophet (John) to be communicated to other believers.
  • At the same time, the visions primarily refer to future events which would occur “soon”.

The use of lo/go$ (“account, ‘word'”) emphasizes again the unique character of the book—visual experiences (images) being recorded/translated into written language (“the [thing]s having been written in it”).

Special notice must be given to the closing words of the verse:

“…for the time (is) near”
o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$

This statement must be taken together with the earlier expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”) in verse 1. As I discussed in the previous note, the expression e)n ta/xei essentially means “quickly”, “right away”. Here, there can be little doubt that we have the same idea, expressed differently:

o( kairo/$—The word kairo/$ differs somewhat from xro/no$, though both may be translated as “time”. The distinction may be summarized as: xro/no$ generally refers to the passage of time, while kairo/$ signifies the point at which something occurs. Understood in a temporal (rather than spatial) sense, kairo/$ refers to the point when an event takes place (or will take place).

e)ggu/$—The modifier e)ggu/$ is related to the verb e)ggi/zw (“come/bring close”), and thus means “close, near”. The word occurs 31 times in the New Testament, but only once more in the book of Revelation (22:10).

Taking these two elements together, the proper sense of the statement should be clear: the point in time when the events described in the visions will occur is very close. This, of course, creates considerable difficulty for Christians today. On the one hand, the most reasonable (and obvious) way of understanding these expressions is that the author is declaring that the events in the visions will occur very soon (presumably, in the lifetime of his [original] audience). Yet, as it would seem that many, if not most, of the visionary details did not then occur—nor have they occurred in the past 2,000 years—it would be hard for many believers to accept the accuracy and/or inspration of the visions in this light. Thus, the various forms and modes of interpretation (“futurist”, “church-historical”, etc) which have arisen to bridge the gap and explain the apparent discrepancy. Yet, the very words here in vv. 1-3, at the beginning of the book, should serve as a caution against any interpretation which deviates too far from the fundamental meaning of the text.

(Regarding the imminent eschatological expectation among early Christians, and evinced throughout the New Testament, I will be dealing with this sensitive subject at various points in these notes, as well as in the articles of the Study Series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. There will also be a separate, special study upcoming as part of this Series.)

Finally, notice should be taken of the coordinating particle ga/r (“for”)—”…for the time is close”. The concluding declaration explains the importance of reading the book aloud in the congregations, and of believers hearing and guarding its contents. The reason this is so vital is that “the time (when these visions will take place) is very close”.

Note of the Day – July 29 (Revelation 1:1-2)

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This is the first in a series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation, which is to run concurrent with the Study Series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament“. Each note will focus on a short section or pericope, examining individual words, phrases and images carefully. The focus is critical and exegetical, but will, as necessary, also address wider theological issues and questions of interpretation. As a point of method, I should state up front that I do not assume any particular (traditional) approach to the book, nor any specific system of eschatology. My goal is to elucidate the text itself and the historical background of the language and imagery that the author/visionary uses. Such an approach should, at the very least, eliminate the more implausible and far-fetched interpretations which have been proposed over the years. At the same time, it should also have the positive effect of giving greater clarity as to what the images and symbols likely would have meant to the author and his original audience at the time.

Questions of authorship and dating for the book will be addressed at various points in the series. For a survey, you may consult any reputable critical commentary; one of the more thorough modern works is the volume (38A) by Craig R. Koester in the Anchor Bible commentary set (Yale: 2014). I have found this volume most helpful, especially for locating passages from Greco-Roman literature which are relevant for explaining the background of the text. References marked “Koester” in the notes are to this work.

Revelation 1:1-3

The book of Revelation is usually regarded as having characteristics of a mixed genre. While it certainly shares many features of “Apocalyptic” literature (which will be discussed), it also follows an epistolary format. Indeed, the overall framework of the book may fairly be described as that of a letter, or epistle. Indeed, the first six verses serve as the epistolary prescript. Verses 1-3 are the superscription, establishing the author’s place and identity, while verses 4-6 are the author’s greeting to his audience. It is important to keep this framework in mind while studying the book.

Verses 1-2

“(An) uncovering of [i.e. by] Yeshua (the) Anointed which God gave to him, to show to his slaves the (thing)s which are necessary to come to be in (all) speed [i.e. swiftly], and he signified (this) sending it forth through his Messenger to his slave Yohanan, who gave witness of the word of God and the witness of Yeshua (the) Anointed—as many (thing)s as he saw.”

a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”)—The verb a)pokalu/ptw literally means “take the cover (away) from”, i.e. “uncover”, often in the figurative sense of “reveal”—making known something which has previously been hidden. The verb occurs 26 times in the New Testament, primarily in the Pauline writings (Rom 1:17-18; 8:18; 1 Cor 2:10; 3:13; 14:30; Gal 1:16, et al). The noun occurs 18 times, again mainly in Paul (Rom 2:5; 8:19; 16:25; 1 Cor 1:7; 14:6, 26; 2 Cor 12:1, 7; Gal 1:12; 2:2; 2 Thess 1:7; also Eph 1:17; 3:3; and, elsewhere, in Luke 2:32 [vb. 2:35]; 1 Pet 1:7, 13; 4:13). The noun is largely absent from the Greek Old Testament (LXX), but the verb is used more than 100 times; its occurrence in Daniel ([Theodotion] 2:19, 22, 28, 30, 47; 10:1) is surely significant for the book of Revelation.

)Ihsou= Xristou= (“of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—This should be understood as a subjective genitive, i.e. Jesus Christ is the one doing the uncovering (cf. further below). The centrality of Jesus (here the title “Anointed” functions as a second name) in the visions which follow is made clear in the very first words of the book.

h^n e&dwken au)tw=| o( qeo/$ (“which God gave to him”)—That is, God the Father gives the revelation to Jesus (the Son), who, in turn, gives it to the visionary (John). This chain of relation is fundamental to most early Christian thought, and certainly features prominently in the Johannine writings. In the Gospel, especially, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that what he gives to believers was given to him by the Father (3:34-35; 5:26, etc); moreover, as a faithful and dutiful Son, he says and does only what he hears/sees the Father saying and doing.

dei=cai toi=$ dou/loi$ au)tou= (“to show to his slaves”)—The word dou=lo$ properly means a “slave”, though this can be somewhat misleading in terms of modern ideas and perceptions of slavery, which often imply oppression and lack of human dignity. The word, as applied figuratively among Christians, emphasizes the idea of belonging to a master. Christians are referred to as “slaves” of God/Christ numerous times in the New Testament (Acts 4:29; 16:17; 1 Cor 7:22; 1 Pet 2:16, etc); Paul and other ministers specifically refer to themselves this way (Rom 1:1; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; 2 Tim 2:24; Tit 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1). Both positive and negative aspects (cf. Rom 6:16-20) of the word are utilized in the book of Revelation.

a^ dei= gene/sqai (“the [thing]s which are necessary to come to be”)—The plural pronoun (“the [thing]s which”) functions as a collective subject in the phrase “it [sg.] is necessary” (dei=); frequently in the New Testament, this verb refers to the will and/or command of God, as expressed in the Scriptures, or by way of prophetic revelation, etc. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus applies it to his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31 par; Luke 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). Here it specifically relates to the foretelling of future events. The verb of being/becoming, gi/nomai, emphasizes that the things made known in these visions will truly come to pass.

e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”)—The word ta/xo$, along with the related noun taxu/[$], is used a number of times in the book (2:16; 3:11; 11:14; 22:6-7, 12, 20), stressing two aspects or characteristics of the visions: (1) the events will happen soon, and (2) their appearance/fulfillment will be sudden and abrupt. In the New Testament, ta/xo$ (“speed, swift[ness]”) only appears in the expression e)n ta/xei, which means “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”, i.e., quickly, right away (cf. Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; Rom 16:20, etc). This expresses the early Christian belief that the end of the current Age, accompanied by Jesus’ return and God’s Judgment upon the world, was imminent. For more on this, see the next daily note (on verse 3).

kai\ e)sh/manen (“and he signified”)—This verbal expression is parallel to the earlier “God gave…”, and reinforced the chain of relationship mentioned above. As God gives the revelation to Jesus, so Jesus, in turn, communicates it to the prophet. The verb (shmai/nw) is related to the word sh=ma, “mark, sign”, and indicates that the message is communicated by way of signs—both language and images (on other occurrences of the verb in this sense, cf. Dan 2:45 LXX; John 12:33; 18:32; Acts 11:28). This stresses the symbolic character of the book, which has proven so difficult for interpreters over the centuries, but which also is the source of its enduring beauty and power.

a)postei/la$ dia\ tou= a)gge/lou au)tou= (“sending [it] forth through his Messenger”)—Jesus communicates the revelation through a heavenly Messenger (‘Angel’); cf. the wording in Malachi 1:1. Frequently in Apocalyptic writings, the message or vision comes by way of an Angel (Ezek 40:3-4; Zech 1:7-6:5; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3, etc; Koester, p. 212). Though the initial vision (vv. 10-18) comes directly from the risen Christ, the remainder of the visions in the book are conveyed by heavenly Messengers; the transition from Jesus to the Messengers occurs in vv. 19-20 and continues throughout the “letters” of chapters 2-3. The verb a)poste/llw conveys the concrete sense of something (or someone, i.e. a messenger) being sent (“set [forth]”) from (a)po/) another—i.e. the revelation comes from Jesus, and is conveyed by his representative.

tw=| dou/lw| au)tou= Iwa/nnh| (“to his slave Yohanan”)—On the figurative use of dou=lo$ (“slave”), and its use as a self-designation by early Christian ministers, cf. above. For the name Yohanan (‘John’), cf. the note in my earlier Advent/Christmas series “And you shall call his name…”. The identity of this “John” will be discussed in the notes on verses 4 and 9.

o^$ e)martu/rhsen (“who gave witness [of]”)—The verb marture/w, along with the related nouns marturi/a and martu/$, is used frequently in the New Testament, and conveys the important concept of giving witness. The apostles and early missionaries acted as witnesses of Jesus and his resurrection, and this idea was carried out more generally to the Gospel message and Christian life as whole. Jesus himself was a witness of God the Father, making the Father known to believers; this is a key theme in the Gospel and Letters of John (Jn 3:11; 5:31ff; 8:14ff; 10:25; 18:37, etc), and continues as a (Johannine) theme in the book of Revelation.

to\n lo/gon tou= qeou= (“the word/account of God”)—The object of John’s witness is expressed here by two parallel expressions. The first is “the lo/go$ of God”. The Greek noun lo/go$, as I have noted before, is extremely difficult to translate, consistently, in English. Properly, it is best rendered as “account”, and this is appropriate when it refers to the Gospel message, etc, as it frequently does in the New Testament (Acts 4:31; 6:2; 8:14; 1 Thess 2:13, etc). However, when it refers specifically to communication by God (to a prophet, etc), then it is generally better to use the conventional translation “word”. Both here, and in the next expression, the genitive (“of God”, “of Yeshua”) should be understood as subjective (i.e. the word comes from God) rather than objective (a message about God). It is a standard expression in Prophetic and visionary writings (Isa 1:10; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jer 1:2; Ezek 1:3, etc).

kai\ th\n marturi/an Ihsou= Xristou= (“and the witness of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—An objective genitive here would mean that it is a witness about Jesus, i.e. the believer is acting as a witness of Christ. This idea certainly features prominently in the book, however, the overall context of these verses argues strongly in favor of a subjective genitive. Again, the chain of relationship, so familiar in the Johannine writings, is emphasized:

  • God speaks, giving the message to Jesus
    • Jesus bears witness to this message, communicating it to believers
      • The believer (here, a chosen prophet), in turn, bears witness of the message to others

o%sa ei@den (“as many [thing]s as he saw”)—This expression qualifies John’s witness, defining and explaining it in terms of the visions recorded in the book. The message is primarily conveyed visually, through images, which the seer (and/or author of the book) translate into written language. This relates back to the verb shmai/nw, “signify”, i.e. make known by signs.

Because of the distinctive (beatitude) form of verse 3, it will be given separate treatment, in the next daily note.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Introduction

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This begins a new Study Series which will run through the remainder of the Summer and into the Fall. It deals with the subject of “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. This area of study is a rather precarious one for commentators, and I approach it with some reluctance. Not only is the eschatological interpretation of “Bible Prophecy” quite problematic and controversial, with many Christians holding sharp and distinctive views, but it also represents one of the more lurid and speculative areas of Scriptural study. There have been an extremely wide range of opinions and interpretations of certain passages—some more or less plausible, and others quite preposterous—throughout the centuries. Often the interest and emphasis on Eschatology, to the neglect of more essential aspects of Christian faith and life, has proven to be altogether unhealthy, resulting in any number of travesties (and tragedies) among Christians all the way down to the present day.

Even more serious is the fundamental question of how to deal with the eschatological worldview we find among the earliest believers (in the 1st century A.D.), in the period of the New Testament, since it differs so markedly, in many respects, from our frame of reference today. Both the chronological and cultural divide creates enormous challenges for us in understanding and interpreting the New Testament writings, and nowhere more so than in the area of eschatology. This will be discussed in detail throughout the series, beginning in this introduction (cf. further below).

The words “Prophecy” and “Eschatology”

Let us start with a definition of the terms:

Prophecy

The English terms “prophecy” and “prophet” derive from the Greek profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ), and the related nouns profhtei/a (proph¢teía) and profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s). The Greek has the fundamental meaning of bringing something to light (i.e. saying, telling, revealing it) before (pro/) others. Prophecy is typically understood in terms of telling the future; however, this is only one aspect of prophecy, and not even the most important one at that. There are two ways that the preposition pro/ (“before, fore[ward]”) here may be understood: (1) spatial or relational, i.e. “in front of”; and (2) chronological, i.e. “beforehand”. The latter sense relates to the foretelling of future events (i.e., declaring things before they happen); yet, the former sense better fits the basic meaning of the corresponding Hebrew ayb!n` (n¹»î°) and ab*n` (n¹»â°) in the Old Testament. In the ancient Near Eastern religious and cultural context, shared by Israelite religion, the aybn is a spokesperson (for God), a chosen representative who receives a message, and communicates this “word” (and will) of God to the people at large. This is also the role of “prophets” in early Christianity, individuals gifted by the Spirit (or, at least, receptive to it), who then speak this message to the congregation(s) with whom they are associated.

Eschatology

This word, as derived from the Greek, literally means “an account of the last [e&sxato$, éschatos] (things)”, i.e. as a subject or area of study. From the standpoint of Biblical theology, it refers to passages in the Scriptures which are thought to discuss or to reveal the end of the current Age, usually connected with the idea of the final Judgment to be brought by God upon the world, and the eternal Life which follows for believers.

Apocalypse/Apocalyptic

Both the verb a)pokalu/ptw (apokaly¡ptœ) and the related noun a)poka/luyi$ (apokálypsis) occur relatively frequently in the New Testament (26/18 times). The fundamental meaning is “take the cover away from”, i.e. “uncover”; it refers to the idea of revelation, more than to specific revelation about the future. The tendency to associate it with prophecy about the future is largely due to the influence of the Book of Revelation, which is called an a)poka/luyi$ (‘Apocalypse’, 1:1). There were a number of Jewish (and Christian) writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D. which have many characteristics in common, enough to warrant categorization as a genre of “Apocalyptic” literature. In these texts, a prophetic figure (usually a famous personage from the past) is given information, and/or allowed to see visions, which are purported to describe future events. The tendency among critical scholars is to regard all (or nearly all) of such works as ex eventu revelations—i.e., descriptions of things which, for the most part, have already occurred. Often the “future” events described would seem to refer to the author’s own life-setting and concerns.

Particular Difficulties Related to Early Christian (New Testament) Eschatology

There are a number of fundamental difficulties which face us today when studying the eschatological worldview and beliefs of the earliest Christians in the New Testament. I outline four here, which I will discuss briefly:

  1. The symbolic (multivalent) character of eschatological language and images.
  2. The unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological (and Messianic) elements, applying them to Jesus.
  3. The nature and extent of “dispensational” language and concepts.
  4. The expectation of an sudden/immanent end to this Age among early Christians.

1. Eschatological expression tends to be apocalyptic in nature (cf. above). This means that the mode of expression, within the framework of “uncovering” hidden/secret things, is often intentionally obscure, utilizing a symbolic language. Such symbolism is the result of two dynamics at work: (1) the idea that the heavenly/divine message, especially regarding future events, is difficult to express, requiring the use of symbols and figurative language; and (2) that this language is meant to protect the message, keeping it hidden and obscure for outsiders. This last point relates especially to eschatological and apocalyptic tendencies in the New Testament, going back to the teachings (esp. the parables) of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 4:11-12 par, etc).

Moreover, the very nature of symbolic language systems is multivalent—that is, individual symbols (and networks of symbols) can often have more than one underlying value or meaning. This requires most careful study and analysis when looking, for example, at the many symbols and figures used in the Book of Revelation. The multivalent character of the apocalyptic mode of expression is mirrored precisely in the vast number of ways that such language has been interpreted by Christians over the centuries.

2. Early Christians, for the most part, inherited their eschatological thought and apocalyptic mode of expression from Israelite/Jewish tradition, beginning with the Old Testament Prophets (especially the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah). This can be seen by the many similarities between the New Testament and certain Jewish writings c. 250 B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D. (including the Qumran [Dead Sea] texts). Most of these writings reflect Messianic thought, in various ways. All of the primary Messianic figure-types which developed (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Judge/Deliverer) had a strong eschatological context, being closely associated with the end of the current Age (and the beginning of the Age to Come). Their appearance was generally thought to coincide with God’s (final) Judgment upon humankind, in which God would judge the wicked/nations and rescue His faithful ones. For more on this topic, cf. the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“.

The early Christian application of Messianic thought (and interpretation of Scripture) to the person of Jesus created a uniquely Christian mode of eschatological/apocalyptic expression. A central difficulty was the fact that Jesus had been put to death, raised, and then departed back to God the Father (in heaven), apparently without fulfilling the traditional eschatological role of the Messiah. The final Judgment, defeat of the wicked/nations, and deliverance of God’s people, etc, all had to wait until Jesus’ return to earth (i.e. “second coming”) sometime in the (near) future. This becomes the fundamental point of early Christian eschatology, but the tension it creates with the traditional manner of eschatological expression, which continued to be used, is manifest all throughout the New Testament, and causes many challenges for interpretation.

3. One specific area where this is manifested is in what I would call the “dispensational” mode of early Christian thought. I am by no means referring to the Dispensationalist systems, and manner of interpretation, popular among many Christians in recent centuries, but, rather, to the basic understanding early Christians had regarding the (eschatological) distinction between “the current Age” and “the Age to Come”. Unique (and essential) to the Christian worldview was the dual character of this “Age to Come”:

  • Aspect 1: The New Age was introduced and inaugurated by Jesus, through his sacrificial death and resurrection, and, especially, by the coming of the Spirit upon believers.
  • Aspect 2: At the same time, this “New Age” is experienced only by believers (i.e. at the spiritual level); the rest of the world remains dominated by sin and darkness. The true end of this current Age will only occur at Jesus’ return, with the final Judgment by God, and the Resurrection of the dead.

The first aspect is sometimes referred to as “realized eschatology”, as opposed to the traditional (future) eschatology of aspect #2. Christians can use eschatological modes of expression to speak of either (or both) of these aspects, which can make study of early Christian eschatology quite difficult at times. “Realized” eschatology is particularly prominent in the Gospel and Letters of John, but it can also be found clearly (and repeatedly) in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere in the New Testament as well.

4. Perhaps the single most difficult area of early Christian eschatology, for believers today, is the expectation of a sudden (imminent) occurrence of the end of the current Age, marked by the return of Jesus and God’s final Judgment. This view that the end is near is to be found in dozens of places, in most of the New Testament writings. I will be discussing these references during this series. For traditional-conservative readers and commentators, in particular, this aspect of early Christian eschatological can be highly problematic, and, indeed, many would deny (or at least mitigate) its implications. After all, by any normal standard of divine inspiration, how could the New Testament authors have been so mistaken as to believe the end was near, when at least 2,000 years would come and go before this occurs? There are no quick or easy solutions to this problem, which requires much careful study, done honestly and openly, without the burden of dogmatic presuppositions. Here I would only summarize several possible views, each of which will be discussed during the course of the articles and notes in this series:

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

The Format of this Series

The articles in this series will cover two aspects of New Testament Eschatology:

  1. Scripture (Old Testament) passages which were understood, by the New Testament authors and/or their readers, to be prophecies or descriptions of the end-time and the Age to Come. I will be limiting this discussion to only those Scriptures which are quoted, or for which there clear allusions, in the New Testament writings. Even though many other passages (in the Prophets, etc) have been given an eschatological interpretation by subsequent Christians, and may have been viewed that way already by believers in the 1st century, these will not be addressed, except in passing.
  2. Statements and prophecies by the New Testament authors, or otherwise contained in the writings themselves, which are not necessarily tied to Old Testament passages.

Here is an initial outline which will be followed:

  • Part 1: Eschatology of Jesus (in the Synoptic Gospels)
    • Sayings and Teachings of Jesus
    • Parables of Jesus
    • The “Eschatological Discourse”
  • Part 2: The Early Christian Preaching (in the Book of Acts)
  • Part 3: Eschatology in the Pauline Letters
    • Overview of the Evidence
    • 1 and 2 Thessalonians (with a special study on 2 Thess chap. 2)
    • Eschatological aspects of Romans
  • Part 4: The Gospel and Letters of John
  • Part 5: The remainder of the New Testament (Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, Jude)
  • Part 6: Christology and the Development of Eschatology
    Appendix on the Early Christian Writings c. 90-150 A.D.

This is preceded by a general survey of the Scriptures which were interpreted in a Messianic sense (and applied to Jesus).

Because of the special place held by the Book of Revelation for New Testament eschatology, I am devoting a separate series of daily notes, commenting on the book, which will run concurrent with the articles in the main series.

“…Spirit and Life” (concluded): The Book of Revelation

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The Book of Revelation

We have reached the end of this series based on Jesus’ words in John 6:63: “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life”. The notes in this series have focused on the use of the words “spirit” (pneu=ma) and “life” (zwh/), especially in the Johannine writings—the Gospel and Letters of John. The Book of Revelation is usually regarded as a Johannine work as well, derived from the same general church environment, timeframe and setting. Many commentators feel that the Johannine congregations were centered around Ephesus, and that certainly fits the book of Revelation; the letters in chaps. 2-3 are addressed to Christians in Asia Minor, beginning with Ephesus. Of course, tradition attributes the Gospel, Letters, and the book of Revelation to John the apostle, but authorship is indicated only in the book of Revelation. Even so, it is far from certain that the “John” in Rev 1:1, 9 is John the apostle.

Most scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation is not the same person as either the Gospel writer or the author of the letters. While certain ideas and expressions are similar between the works, the language and style of the book of Revelation is markedly different. As we shall see, even the sense of the words pneu=ma (“spirit”) and zwh/ (“life”) has a different orientation and emphasis than in the Gospel or Letters. Let us begin with the word pneu=ma. Apart from several occurrences of the plural, which refer to “unclean/evil spirits” (16:13-14; 18:2), it is always the Spirit of God which is in view, much as we find in the other Johannine writings. However, it is used in two distinctive ways which differ markedly from the Gospel and Letters: (1) references to “seven Spirits” of God, and (2) the prophetic role and work of the Spirit.

“Spirit” in the Book of Revelation

Four times in the book (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), we read of “seven Spirits”, an idea that is unique to the book of Revelation among the New Testament writings. Christians have variously sought to association this number seven with the Holy Spirit, often in terms of seven “gifts” or “attributes”, such as the traits listed in Isa 11:2-3. However, it would seem that these seven “Spirits” should be considered as distinct from the Holy Spirit, and identified instead with heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”). The evidence for this is:

  • Psalm 104:4 refers to God’s Messengers (“angels”) as “Spirits” and also as “flames of fire” (much like the seven Spirits in 4:5)
  • These “Spirits” are located in heaven, surrounding the throne of God, similar to the fiery/heavenly beings in Isa 6:1ff and Ezek 1:4-28, as well as the “living creatures” elsewhere in the book of Revelation. The image seems to be drawn most directly from Zech 4:2, 10, where the the seven lamps are said to function as God’s “eyes” (Rev 5:6, messengers sent out into the world). The idea of seven angels surrounding God’s throne generally follows Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7, etc).
  • These “Spirits” are treated as distinct from Jesus Christ in a way that would be most unusual if it were meant to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:4)
  • They are clearly connected with the “seven congregations” of chaps. 2-3, each of which has a Messenger (“Angel”) associated with it. In Israelite/Jewish tradition, certain heavenly Messengers were assigned to particular nations, groups or individuals (for protection, etc). This interpretation is more or less made explicit in 2:20.

In the remainder of the book, pneu=ma specifically refers to the activity and role of the Spirit (of God) in prophecy—the revealing of God’s word and will, to be communicated to God’s people (believers) by a chosen representative. This is expressed several different ways:

1. e)n pneu/mati (“in the Spirit”). This expression occurs first in Rev 1:10, which sets the scene for the prophetic visions described in the book:

“I came to be in the Spirit in/on the lordly day [i.e. Lord’s day], and I heard behind me a great voice…”

This is the basis of the visionary experience which comes to the prophet “John”; it reflects the older, traditional aspect of the prophetic figure being “in the Spirit” (Ezek 3:12; Luke 2:27, etc). Even among Christians, who experience the Spirit in a new way—as the permanent, abiding presence of Christ (and God the Father)—certain believers could still be gifted and inspired specially as prophets (cf. below).

The next occurrence of the expression is in 4:2, where the prophetic inspiration now takes the form of a heavenly vision—i.e., the ability to see things in heaven, a ‘spiritual’ dimension above (cf. Ezek 8:3-4; 11:5). There are numerous accounts in Jewish tradition of visionary travels through the heavenly realms (e.g., the Enoch literature, the Ascension of Isaiah, etc). Paul may have experienced something of this sort, according to his statement in 2 Cor 12:1-4. The remaining two occurrences take place later in the book, where the seer states that the heavenly Messenger “led me away in the Spirit” (17:3; 21:10). In each instance, he is transported into a visionary landscape (desert, high mountain), to a symbolic and undefined ‘spiritual’ location, similar to those in many mystical and ascetic religious experiences.

2. The Spirit speaks to/through the visionary. This is the core manifestation and dynamic of the prophetic experience. Through the prophet, the Spirit (of God) speaks to the wider Community. This takes place in the “letters” to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3, each of which concludes with a common refrain:

“The one holding [i.e. possessing] an ear must hear what the Spirit says to the congregations” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)

The first phrase follows wording used by Jesus (Mark 4:9 par, etc), especially in relation to his making known “secrets” to his followers, through the use of parables, etc. In speaking to these congregations, the Spirit essentially represents the risen Jesus, communicating his words to the believers in Asia Minor. As in other portions of the New Testament, prophecy is viewed as the work of the Spirit, in a uniquely Christian sense. There are two aspects to the fundamental meaning of the word profhtei/a (lit. speaking before):

  • The Spirit presents God’s message (His word and will) before the people (that is, to them, in front of them), through the inspired believer (prophet) as a spokesperson
  • He also announces things beforehand (i.e., foretells), indicated here by the eschatological orientation of the book

There is a specific association with prophecy in two additional passages:

  • 19:10—the expression “the Spirit of foretelling [i.e. prophecy]”, where the Spirit expressly conveys the word of the risen Jesus to the people; here the Spirit is identified as “the witness of Jesus”. This is also an important aspect of the Johannine view of the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters.
  • 22:6—the expression “the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets]”; this refers to the (human) spirit of the prophet which is touched and inspired by the Spirit of God. In this way, the gifted believer, when speaking, is governed by the Spirit. Cf. 1 Cor 14:32, and also note 1 Jn 4:1-3.

3. The Spirit speaks directly. Twice in the book of Revelation we find the Spirit speaking directly, responding to a heavenly voice. In 14:13, the response echoes a command to write (v. 12); this solemn refrain is appropriate to the context of believers who are put to death for their faithfulness to Jesus. In 22:17, at the close of the book, it follows the announcement of Jesus’ imminent coming (vv. 7, 12). The Spirit responds along with the “Bride” (believers collectively), as well as “the one who hears” (i.e. hears the visions of the book read out). This reflects the work of the Spirit in and among believers, witnessing together with them (cf. John 15:26-27).

“Spirit” and “Life”

At several points in the book of Revelation, both the words “spirit” and “life” are used in the general sense of ordinary physical/biological (human) life. This life is given by God (11:11, cf. Gen 2:7; and note also 8:9; 16:3), and it plays on the dual meaning of pneu=ma as both “breath” and “spirit”. It is particularly associated with the idea of resurrection (2:8; 20:4-5), as we see also in the Gospel of John (5:19-29; chap. 11). Only here it is the traditional, eschatological understanding of resurrection, rather than the spiritual sense of “realized” eschatology which dominates the Gospel. The giving of “life” is also presented as part of the false/evil work performed by the forces of ‘antichrist’, in imitation of God’s work of creation (13:15).

“Life” in the Book of Revelation

The words zwh/ (“life”) and the related verb za/w (“live”) are used primarily in three different senses in the book of Revelation:

1. Traditional references to God as “living” (7:2) or as “the one who lives (forever)” (4:9-10; 10:6; cf. Dan 4:34; 12:7; Sirach 18:1, etc). Particularly important in this regard is the fact that Jesus identifies himself with this Divine title/attribute in 1:17-18; the declaration takes the form of an “I Am” saying similar to those we see throughout the Gospel of John:

I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the first and the last, and the living one [o( zw=n]…”

However, this is not necessarily an absolute statement of deity; it relates specifically to the resurrection and the risen Jesus:

“…I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n ei)mi] into the Ages of the Ages, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades” (v. 18b)

2. Repeated references to “living (creature)s” (zw=|a) in heaven (i.e. heavenly beings) surrounding the throne of God (cf. Ezek 1:4-10ff)—4:6-7; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 6:1, 3, 5-7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4. These are parallel, in certain respects, to the “seven Spirits” which surround the throne (cf. above). This Old Testament motif follows ancient Near Eastern religious imagery and iconography; it was revived in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

3. There are a series of expressions with the genitive zwh=$ (“…of life”). Here we are closest to the meaning of the word zwh/ in the Gospel and Letters of John—as the divine/eternal Life which believers come to possess through faith in Christ and the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel, we find similar expressions: “Bread of Life”, “Light of Life”, etc. In the book of Revelation, these are as follows:

a. “Paper-roll of Life” (h( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$, or to\ bibli/on th=$ zwh=$)—3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27. The words bi/blo$ (bíblos) and bibli/on (biblíon) have essentially the same meaning. They are typically translated as “book”, but this is often somewhat misleading, especially in the current context. More properly, it refers to a paper (papyrus) roll or scroll; and here it is simply a roll on which names are recorded—the names of those persons (believers) who will come to inherit the divine/eternal Life. This is tied to the ancient (Near Eastern) scene of Judgment, envisioned as occurring after death. Jewish tradition came to apply it within an eschatological setting—i.e., of the Judgment which will take place at the end time. The specific image used in the book of Revelation has an Old Testament background (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1), which continued and developed in Jewish tradition (4Q524; Jubilees 30:22; 1 Enoch 108:3, etc), and into early Christianity (Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20; 4:3).

The concept draws upon Greco-Roman practice as well—lists of registered citizens, who receive the rights and benefits of citizenship. For believers in Christ, this is a heavenly citizenship in the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22). Sinning can cause a person’s name to be “wiped out” (erased) from the roll (3:5); however, the names of (true) believers have been inscribed from before the time of creation (17:8). These believers belong to the Lamb (Jesus Christ, 13:8) and have been destined to inherit Life. Even so, according to the view of the book of Revelation, this is not absolutely unconditional; rather, only the believers who endure faithfully to the end will receive the promised Life.

b. “Tree of Life” (to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$)—2:7; 22:2, 14, 19. The expression relates to an ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological image with parallels in many cultures worldwide. Here it derives primarily from Old Testament tradition, with the setting of the “garden of God” (Gen 2:9; 3:22ff; cf. also Ezek 28:13ff; 31:9; Isa 51:3). Conceivably, there could also be an allusion to Greco-Roman tree-shrines, since, at many points in the book of Revelation, true worship of God is contrasted with false/evil pagan (Greco-Roman) practices. There is a close eschatological association with the “Water of Life” motif (cf. below); both are part of the Paradise-Garden landscape utilized in closing visions of chap. 21-22, and were also preserved in Christian thought through Jewish wisdom traditions (Prov 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; 2 Esdras 2:12; 8:52). The reward for believers is to eat of the fruit from the Tree, which also provides life-giving healing through its leaves (20:2, taken from Psalm 1:3).

c. “Water of Life” (to\ u%dwr th=$ zwh=$)—21:6; 22:1, 17. There is a similar expression, “living water” (cf. 7:17), which, in the Old Testament originally referred to naturally flowing water (from a stream or spring), but which came to be applied in a symbolic, spiritual sense (Song 4:5; Jer 2:13; 17:13; cf. Isa 49:10, etc). Such expressions are used by Jesus in the Gospel of John (4:10-11, 14; 7:38), which I have discussed in earlier notes in this series; there, water is primarily used as a symbol of the Spirit (cf. also Jn 3:3-8; 19:30, 34).

d. “Crown/Wreath of Life” (o( ste/fano$ th=$ zwh=$)—2:10 (cf. also 3:11; 4:4, 10). A circular wreath (ste/fano$), given as a sign of honor, was especially common in Greco-Roman culture. It was given to victors in athletic events and other competitions, for military service and triumphs, as well as for important public/civic service (see Koester, pp. 277-8 for a summary of examples from Classical literature). The primary association is that of victory (6:2). For believers in Christ, the honor (‘glory’) relates to faithfulness and endurance (against sin, evil, and apostasy [falling away]) during the time of testing and persecution. Paul uses much the same motif in 1 Cor 9:25, and alludes to it also in 1 Thess 2:19; Phil 4:1. The specific expression (“crown/wreath of Life”) is found in the letter of James (1:12), and 1 Peter 5:4 has “crown/wreath of honor [do/ca] without (any) fading” which is very close in meaning.

This study in the book of Revelation concludes the current series and also provides an introduction for the next, which will deal with the subject of eschatology and prophecy in the New Testament. Parallel to the articles in this series, a running set of daily notes will work through the book of Revelation in more detail, focusing specifically on the background of the visionary language and symbolism in the book, as it would have been understood by the author and his original audience. I hope that you will join me for this exciting study.

References marked “Koester” above are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014). This is a most valuable modern critical treatment of the book, with many relevant citations from Classical works.

Special Article on the Letters of John

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Special Article on the Letters of John

As I have dealt at length with the Letters of John (1 John, in particular) in the recent notes of this series, touching upon many aspects of their life-setting (and church-setting), I felt it would be worthwhile to supplement this study with a brief survey of the background of the letters, insofar as it is possible to determine. This will not be a thorough or exhaustive introduction (for that, you may consult any reputable critical Commentary); rather, I will outline some of the key points which are especially helpful for analyzing and interpreting the letters.

Authorship, Timeframe, and Geographical Setting

Tradition ascribes authorship of both the Gospel and Letters to John the Apostle. This was established by at least the middle of the 2nd century, as indicated by texts from the latter half of the century, such as the Muratorian fragment and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (I.16.3, III.1.1), as well as the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John, and Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Church History VI.14.7). While this tradition is fairly strong, the writings themselves are actually anonymous, with no specific identification of authorship. Support for the apostle as the author of 1 John, as well as the authenticity (and canonical status) of the letter, is somewhat stronger than that of 2-3 John (cf. Eusebius’ Church History III.24.17, 25.2; VI.25.10; VII.25.7-8, but note also his view in the Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.88). There are strong indicators in the Letters to suggest that they were not written by a leading Apostle such as John.

With regard to the authorship/origins of the Gospel, the main figure is the close disciple of Jesus referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), often rendered as “the Beloved Disciple”. Most often, this person is identified with John son of Zebedee, according to tradition, but commentators have suggested other possibilities as well, such as John Mark or Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:5, 36; 12:1-2). All we can say for certain, is that the “Beloved Disciple” was one of Jesus’ close followers, and that he was not Simon Peter (13:23-24; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20ff). The responsible commentator really ought not to presume more than this. It is noteworthy that the “Beloved Disciple” only features in the Passion Narrative spanning the second half of the book (chaps. 13-21), and, it would seem, was regarded by the Gospel writer as a key source of information for this section. It has been suggested that he was the unnamed disciple accompanying Peter in 18:15ff, as well as the witness cited in 19:35-36. The last point is quite likely, especially considering how the ‘appendix’ to the Gospel (chap. 21) identifies the “Beloved Disciple” specifically as a prime witness for the events being narrated in the Gospel (v. 24). This statement is worth quoting:

“This (person) is the learner [i.e. disciple] giving witness to these things and having written them, and we have seen [i.e. known] that his witness is true.”

The reference to “having written” is sometimes assumed, by traditional-conservative commentators especially, to mean that the “Beloved Disciple” is the Gospel writer; but this interpretation is scarcely required by the text. All the statement really means is that the “Beloved Disciple” committed his testimony to writing in some form. It could just as easily indicate that his written testimony was a source used by the Gospel writer, who was a different person; indeed, this seems most likely. Critical commentators generally regard the authorship of the Gospel along the following lines:

  • The “Beloved Disciple” was a leading figure (if not the leading figure) among the Community (i.e. congregations) which produced and first circulated the Gospel. As a close disciple of Jesus, he was a key source for the traditions (including eyewitness testimony and memories) preserved in the Gospel. These would have been transmitted orally, and also in writing; indeed, he may have composed a core Gospel account which the writer incorporated within the main text.
  • The Gospel writer—a different person from the “Beloved Disciple”, though almost certainly coming from the same line of tradition (or “school”, cf. below); he may have been a close follower himself of the “Beloved Disciple”, committed to preserving his Apostolic witness (much like the relationship tradition ascribes to John Mark and Peter in the composition of the Gospel of Mark).
  • The final editing/redaction of the Gospel. This may have been done, at a later point, by the Gospel writer himself, or by a second author/editor. Commentators are divided on this point, though in general agreement that chapter 21 is a secondary (later) addition to the main Gospel, which concluded at 20:31.

On the whole, this a very plausible general reconstruction, which seems to fit the available evidence.

With regard to the Letters, scholars are divided as to authorship, in terms of the relation of the Letters to the Gospel. Clearly, they share the same thought-world and theology (including Christology), as well as having considerable similarity in vocabulary, language, and style. If one takes into account the normal differences, between the Gospel and First Letter, due to the adaptation of earlier historical/traditional material in the Gospel, the two works appear to be very close indeed, and could have been written by the same person. Depending on the relative roles given to the Gospel writer and a (possible) subsequent editor/redactor, commentators have identified the author of the letters (or at least the First Letter) with either the writer or editor/redactor of the Gospel, respectively. There are a range of valid possibilities, but none can be determined with certainty.

There are also differences of opinion regarding the relationship between 1 John and the second & third Letters, which are almost certainly written by the same person. The author of 1 John is not identified in any way, but 2 and 3 John both were written by a man calling himself “the Elder”. While the designation o( presbu/tero$ (“the elder”) could conceivably be used for an Apostle (such as John), this is rather unlikely, especially the context of the initial address of a letter. For example, in 1 Peter, the author (who identifies himself as Peter) calls himself sumpresbu/teros (“elder [along] with [you]”), but only in the immediate context of addressing other elders; in the initial address he clearly refers to himself as a)po/stolo$ (“[one] sent forth”, apostle), even as Paul does in many of his letters. Moreover, the author of 2-3 John does not appear to write as one possessing apostolic authority. Indeed, the entire milieu of the Letters suggests a time after the first generation of apostolic witnesses has passed from the scene. According to tradition, John the Apostle would have been one of the last to pass away. The (recent) death of the “Beloved Disciple” is suggested by the context of Jn 21:22-23ff.

Even so, many commentators would attribute all three Letters to the same person—i.e., “the Elder” in 2-3 John. The close similarity of language, style and content between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this. The best explanation as to why this author did not address himself the same way in First Letter, is that 1 John, in fact, is not a letter or epistle, but a (theological) tract or exposition which achieved circulation among the various congregations. Thus, it would not have been formulated the same way as an actual letter, and, indeed, is lacking most of the common characteristics of the epistolary format. Who is “the Elder” who produced the Letters? There are several ways to understand this:

  • He is simply one of the (leading) Elders of the Johannine churches
  • He is the chief (overseeing, i.e. e)pi/skopo$) Elder for the (Johannine) churches of the region
  • He is a leading figure with the special title “the Elder”, due to his close connection with the founding apostle of the churches (the “Beloved Disciple”, whether John or another apostle)
  • He is, in fact, the “Beloved Disciple” (John or another apostle) who calls himself by the title “Elder”

In my view, only the second and third options are likely to be correct. As an interesting side note, which might confirm option #3, there is an early Christian tradition which distinguishes the apostle John from another elder John. Eusebius (Church History 3.39.4) records a statement by Papias (c. 130 A.D.) which identifies two such distinct figures named John (cf. also Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9; and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:46). A relatively simple, more general explanation would be to distinguish a group of leading “Elders”, installed by the Apostles and other early/leading missionaries, in the various churches, all of whom represent the second generation of Christian leaders. The apostolic witness was passed on to them, and they, in turn, faithfully preserve and transmit it for subsequent generations. This is very much the situation expressed in the Pastoral letters, and is attested elsewhere in early tradition (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). Irenaeus confirms such a distinction between “apostle” and “elder” (Against Heresies III.3.4; IV.27.1; V.33.3), and this would seem to be in accord with the general setting of the Johannine Letters.

Geographic Setting—Where were the Gospel and Letters first composed and circulated? Two regions are usually cited as the most likely possibilities: (1) Syria, the area around Antioch, and (2) Asia Minor, spec. the area around Ephesus. In favor of Syria, we might cite as evidence:

  • The Palestinian background of the Gospel, including the Jerusalem setting for many of the episodes, an abundance of local detail not found in the other Gospels, and the occurrence of numerous Semitisms. However, this may reflect the underlying historical traditions, rather than the place of composition.
  • The primacy and importance of Antioch as one of the earliest (and most influential) centers of Christianity.
  • Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, and his letters (c. 110-115 A.D.) reflect Johannine thought and expression at various points, though there are no certain quotations.
  • There are also considerable points of similarity between the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) and the so-called Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns (late-1st/early-2nd century) which are assumed to have a Syrian provenance.

In favor of Ephesus:

  • Early Christian tradition associates John the apostle (and the Johannine writings) with Ephesus. This is part of the Johannine tradition established by the middle of the 2nd century—cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; the Acts of John; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1, etc; and the testimony of Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (in Eusebius’ Church History V.24.3). On the other hand, Ignatius, in writing to the Christians of Ephesus, mentions Paul’s work, but says nothing of John having been there.
  • As mentioned above, Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John (on this, cf. below).
  • The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
  • The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
  • John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.

Timeframe—When were the Gospel and Letters written? Most scholars would place them at the end of the 1st century A.D., making them among the latest of the New Testament writings. This would be possible, even for those who identify the author as John, since, according to tradition, John the Apostle died an advanced age, toward the end of the century. Moreover, the danger expressed in the Gospel, of early Christians being expelled from the Synagogues, and in the way this is formulated by the author, has been thought to reflect a time around 80-90 A.D. There are other aspects of the treatment and adaptation of traditional material in the Gospel which suggests a similar time frame. I have discussed this at some length in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“.

The Relationship between the Johannine Letters and the Gospel

The similarities in thought, language, and expression, indicate that the Gospel and Letters of John both derive from a common church-setting or environment (usually referred to as the Johannine Community), and also date from around the same time. The Gospel probably was composed earlier than the Letters (though this is not absolutely certain); a date of around 90 A.D. is often posited for the Gospel, with c. 100 A.D. for the Letters, and this likely is not too far off the mark. It would seem that the First Letter was written after the pattern of the Gospel (in the notes we examined the similarities between the opening and closing of both works), and functions a kind of authoritative exposition of the theology (and Christology) expressed in the Gospel. In particular, it draws heavily upon the discourses of Jesus, especially the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17); or, at the very least, is working from the same basic Tradition. The main theological concerns of First Letter are echoed in the Second, which is addressed to a particular congregation (a “sister church”) some distance removed from the author. The subject matter of the Third Letter differs, but helps provide a glimpse of the overall church setting of the Letters (cf. below).

It is sometimes held that the separatist Christians who are the opponents (“antichrists”) in 1 and 2 John reflect a split in the Johannine Community centered on different approaches to the Christology of the Tradition (i.e. in the Fourth Gospel). I have discussed this in the recent notes, and address it again down below.

The Relationship between 1 John and 2-3 John

As stated above, I tend to regard the author of 1 John as the same as “the Elder” who wrote the Second and Third Letters. The similarities in thought and emphasis between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this; at any rate, it is the simplest explanation. There is some question as to the order in which the Letters were composed. The traditional arrangement tells us nothing, since it simply reflects length (longest to shortest). There is really no way to determine the chronology. However, from our standpoint, the traditional order is helpful, since the theological exposition of 1 John helps to elucidate the church situation of 2 and 3 John (which are actual letters). 1 John 2:18-27 is a warning against the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations (“they went out of us…”) and would deceive others in the churches (v. 26). This is precisely the situation the author describes in 2 John 7-11, and it is clear that these “false” believers are considered (by the author) to hold and proclaim the “false” view of Jesus indicated in 1 John 4:1-3. The author warns his “sister church” not to treat such persons as fellow believers in Christ (2 Jn 10-11). This could mean that the situation has grown more serious by the time 2 John was written, though this is not certain. It is also possible that the conflict with Diotrephes in 3 John (vv. 9-10ff) is related in some way to this same situation involving the Johannine separatists. Missionaries and representatives from both “sides” would have sought to visit the various congregations in the region. Just as the author of 2 John urges his audience to refuse hospitality to the other side, so Diotrephes may be doing the same (but in the opposite direction) in 3 John.

The Church Setting and Opponents in the Letters

If either region proposed for the Johannine Churches (and Writings) is correct—i.e. Antioch or Ephesus—then it is possible to reconstruct, to some extent, the church setting of the Letters. This would involve the congregations of a major city or town (such as Ephesus), which had authority or influence over congregations in the surrounding region; quite likely, these outlying churches would have been founded by missionaries working from the main city. All of these congregations would have been fairly small—house churches (typically the house of a relatively wealthy individual), large enough to support perhaps several dozen people, though many congregations were likely much smaller than that. The earliest church centers were founded by apostles—men (and possibly women) who represented the first-generation of believers, who had either been close companions of Jesus, or who witnessed the resurrection and the beginning of Christianity (in Judea). The “Beloved Disciple”, whether or not he is to be identified with John son of Zebedee, was certainly one of these apostles, and, according to the Gospel, he was the source of reliable early tradition and teaching; presumably he was the leading figure (and founder) of the Johannine congregations. Such apostles would have set in place leaders (“elders”) in every congregation, and where appropriate, special elders assigned to be overseers of a particular area. In the setting assumed by the Pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus functioned as this sort of regional overseer, under Paul’s (apostolic) authority; it is possible that “the Elder” of the Johannine Letters had a similar role (and/or relationship to the “Beloved Disciple”).

As I discussed above, only 2 and 3 John are true letters, addressed to a specific group or individual. Second John is addressed to a “sister church” (vv. 1, 13), presumably one with a very close relationship to the author’s own congregation(s). At any rate, he is writing to believers whom he assumes will be, and should be, in agreement with him. Third John is written to an individual (Gaius) who is a member of a particular congregation. This may (or may not) be the same congregation currently being led by Diotrephes (vv. 9-10); probably it is a separate congregation. The author is asking Gaius for support in the missionary work of certain “brothers”. In ancient times, relations between groups (such as churches), and leadership networks, had to be maintained through personal visits and messengers delivering authoritative letters. Travelling missionaries (both “apostles” and “prophets”) were common in the early church, and it could be difficult at times to determine the legitimacy and authority of such persons. Both those aligned with the author, and those on the other side (the “antichrists”), would have visited various congregations seeking to gain support and influence. In 2 John 10-11 the author urges the congregation to refuse hospitality to any missionary or representative who holds the aberrant view of Jesus described in vv. 7-9. Similarly, in 3 John 9-10, Diotrephes apparently is doing much the same thing—urging people to refuse hospitality to representatives aligned with the author. Demetrius (v. 12) would seem to be one of these representatives, or missionaries, and that the author is asking for Gaius to provide support for him.

Clearly, Diotrephes is presented as an opponent in 3 John; however, we do not really know the basis or origin of the apparent conflict that has resulted in the situation described in vv. 9-10. It is a different matter in 2 John, where the opponents are characterized by particular Christological views (vv. 7-9). The language used to describe them is quite close to that in 1 John 2:18ff and 4:1-3. Some commentators have questioned whether one or more opposing groups are being referenced in 1 John; in my view, there would seem to be one main group in focus—a group which separated from the Johannine congregations, holding and proclaiming a distinctive view of Jesus that differed markedly from the traditional (Johannine) portrait presented in the Gospel. These “false” believers (“antichrists”), according to the author, are violating both aspects of the two-fold ‘commandment’ which defines our identity as (true) believers in Christ—(1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example.

There have been many attempts to identify these separatist opponents with various heretical or heterodox groups in the early Church, such as the Nicolaitans, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, but of whom we know very little. More common is an association with Cerinthus, who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26.1-2; III.3.4., 11.1), was both an early “Gnostic” and adversary of the apostle John (in Ephesus). Unfortunately, much of the information provided by the Church Fathers regarding Cerinthus is contradictory and far from reliable. He appears to have held a quasi-Gnostic “separationist” view of Jesus, which does not quite square with the data in 1 and 2 John. Much closer to the Johannine opponents are the Christological views attacked by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles. This is echoed closely by Polycarp in his letter to the Christians of Philippi (7:1 is virtually a quotation of 1 Jn 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7). It would seem to confirm that there were Christians in Asia Minor in the period 110-130 A.D. (within a generation of the Johannine letters) holding views similar to those described (and condemned) in 1 and 2 John.

The Johannine “School”

Many critical commentators have referred to a Johannine “School”, though this term can be quite misleading. The basic idea it expresses is of a chain of common tradition, stemming from the apostolic testimony of “the Beloved Disciple” and the first generation of believers associated with him, down to the end of the 1st century A.D., and the leaders of the congregations he helped to found. These leaders are the ones who preserved and safeguarded the traditions—the Gospel message, teaching of Jesus, and the theology/Christology expressed in the Gospel of John—and represent the group(s) which originally composed and circulated the Gospel (and First Letter). The author of the Letters (“the Elder”) was a leading figure (perhaps the leading figure) for these Johannine congregations. The language, ideas, and theology in the Gospel and Letters is distinctive—”Johannine”, as compared with that of the Pauline letters and churches, etc. The Book of Revelation has also been considered a “Johannine” work, with certain characteristics in common with the Gospel and Letters, though written in a very different language and style. According to tradition, all five writings are attributed to John the apostle (hence, “Johannine”), but few commentators today would accept this traditional identification without further ado.

Christology appears to be at the root of the conflict in 1 and 2 John—between the author (representing the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations) and the separatists who “went out” from them. Many commentators feel that this split reflects a fundamental difference of interpretation regarding the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The viewpoint of these separatists, by all accounts, was an early “docetic” Christology, one which denied the reality of Jesus’ human life (and death), or, at least, minimized or relativized its importance. It is easy enough to see how such a view might develop out the uniquely “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of John proved to be popular among certain heretical/heterodox Christians, including so-called Gnostics, many of whom evinced “docetic” or “separationist” tendencies which challenged and clashed with the (proto-)orthodox view of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Heracleon, for example, wrote perhaps the earliest commentary on the Gospel of John, which spurred Origen to compose his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary.

This question of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” plunges us into a difficult and sensitive issue which ought to be addressed, in closing. How far should Christians today go in following the example of 1 John 5:16-17 and 2 John 10-11, essentially refusing to regard or treat as fellow those with differing Christological views? Remember that the author of 3 John decries the fact that Diotrephes is apparently doing much the same thing (vv. 9-10), only on the other side of the fence! Surely this is not merely a question of lining up to a precise Christological formulation or creed. The author of 1 John spends five chapters expounding the theological (and ethical) aspects of what we might call the “fundamentals” of Christian identity—of our identity as (true) believers in Christ. It is tied to such powerful notions as what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the affect of his death, the meaning and significance of sin, and the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. For centuries, supposed Christians have accused one another of not being true believers, not holding the correct belief, and this has often resulted in many tragic episodes (often based on unfortunate misunderstandings), including angry words, insults, excommunication, hostility of all sorts, not infrequently leading to persecution and violence. In the name of Christ, many have exhibited the very sort of hatred which violates the command to love other Christians, according to Christ’s own example. Before proceeding to the drastic step of refusing to acknowledge Christians as fellow believers, let us take the author’s own advice and “test the spirits”—including the manner in which we are acting and reacting. Is it in accordance with the Holy Spirit of God and Christ?

Sadly, many Christians today are no longer faced with the kind of Christological questions with which the Johannine congregations sought to grapple. Christology has almost disappeared entirely from the Church. We must return to it anew, and I can think of no better place to start than with the Gospel and Letters of John. I hope and trust that this series has been stimulating and inspiring, perhaps encouraging you to further study of these marvelous works.