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Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 2)

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The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 2)

In the previous article, I examined in detail the declaration by Jesus (Mark 1:15; par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7; Luke 10:9ff) which introduces his public ministry in the core Synoptic Tradition. The eschatological background and connotation of the language was discussed. Indeed, the eschatology of Jesus cannot be separated from his teaching regarding the Kingdom of God. This will be mentioned at several points during our survey of the remaining sayings of Jesus; for more detail on the expression/concept “Kingdom of God” in the New Testament, cf. my earlier article, and Part 5 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

I have decided to group together the sayings of Jesus, which have an eschatological aspect, or emphasis, under several themes. At the same time, I find it useful to continue the method applied in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, distinguishing between: (a) the core Synoptic tradition, representing primarily by the Gospel of Mark, (b) the [“Q”] material shared by Matthew and Luke, and (c) sayings or details which are unique to Matthew and Luke.

As we shall see, most of Jesus’ eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Tradition is grouped together, or otherwise contained, in the great “discourse” set in Jerusalem shortly before his death (Mark 13 par). This portion of the study will be limited to those sayings and statements which appear elsewhere in the narratives. The sayings cover the following areas:

  1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist
  2. References to the coming of the Kingdom, with a clear eschatological emphasis
  3. References to the coming Day of Judgment
  4. Specific references to the coming of the “Son of Man” (Judgment context)
  5. References indicating a(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers
  6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist

As the Synoptic Gospels essentially begin with the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist, it is useful here to look again at several important traditions related to the Baptist. In the previous article, we examined briefly the eschatological background and context of John’s preaching, which, according to Mark 1:15 par, was generally shared by Jesus at the start of his ministry. More significant for the Gospel tradition are the two Scripture passages associated with John and his ministry—Isa 40:3 and Malachi 3:1ff. The age and authenticity of the association with these passages is confirmed by several factors:

  • Multiple attestation in several lines of tradition (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; Luke 1:16-17, 76; John 1:23)
  • The similar use of Isa 40:3 by the Qumran Community (1st century B.C.)
  • The (Messianic) language/terminology influenced by Mal 3:1ff (cf. below), which largely disappeared from subsequent Christian usage
  • The inconsistencies of application to both John and Jesus, only partly harmonized in the Gospels as we have them
  • The lack of reference/interest in John, and the related Messianic associations, in early Christianity by the time most of the New Testament books were written (c. 50-90 A.D.).

The prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff had an eschatological emphasis essentially from the beginning. As I have discussed elsewhere, in its original context, the “Messenger” almost certainly referred to a heavenly/divine Messenger (i.e. an Angel), who represented YHWH himself when he comes to judge his people. At some point in the composition of the book, this was given a specific interpretation, or application (4:5-6): the prophet Elijah would be the one preceding the Lord’s appearance on the great day of Judgment. He would bring about the repentance of the people, restoring the faith and religion of Israel. This belief and (eschatological) expectation came to be established in Jewish tradition (cf. Sirach 48:10, and Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) and certainly informs the Baptist traditions in the Gospels. Even though John specifically denies being Elijah in Jn 1:21, 25, early Christians came to view him in this light. Jesus himself makes this association in the Gospel tradition, in Mark 9:11-13 par, which is worth examining briefly.

Mark 9:11-13 par

This exchange between Jesus and his disciples follows the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:1-10 par), though it may reflect a separate tradition which has been joined to that scene, through thematic “catchword-bonding”—i.e. the common motifs of Elijah and the prediction of Jesus’ suffering/death. There does seem to be an abrupt shift in the discussion toward eschatology, as the disciples ask Jesus:

“(Why is it) that the writers [i.e. scribes, experts on the Writings] relate that it is necessary (for) Eliyyah to come first?” (v. 11)

This certainly reflects the tradition from Mal 4:5-6 (cf. above), that Elijah would appear shortly before the great day of Judgment. The use of the verb dei= (“be necessary” [lit. binding], i.e. required) emphasizes a very specific detail of the eschatological expectation—before the day of Judgment comes, Elijah must first appear, preparing God’s people for that moment, in fulfillment of Mal 4:5-6. Jesus would seem to confirm this belief:

“(Yes) Elijah, coming first, (does) set all things down from (what they were before)…” (v. 12a)

I have given an excessively literal translation of the verb a)pokaqi/sthmi, but the basic idea is that of restoring a previous condition—i.e. the kingdom of Israel, the religious devotion of the people, etc. The verb has eschatological significance, as is clear from its use in Acts 1:6 (to be discussed). What is interesting here (as in Acts 1:6ff) is how Jesus suddenly shifts the focus from this eschatological expectation to the situation in the present moment, namely his upcoming suffering and death:

“…and (yet) how (then) has it been written about the Son of Man, that he would suffer many (thing)s and (be) made out as nothing?” (v. 12b)

Jesus is using the equivalent of a me/nde/ construction, establishing a contrast—i.e. “[me/n] (on the one hand)…”, “but [de/, here kai/] (on the other hand)…” To paraphrase, he is telling his disciples:

“Yes, it is true that Elijah comes first and restores all things, but then how is it that the Son of Man will suffer many things and be reduced to nothing?”

Jesus’ explanation is actually a shattering of traditional eschatological (and Messianic) expectation, presented as something of a conundrum. The significance of this has specifically to do with the identification of John the Baptist as “Elijah”. The traditional understanding of Mal 4:5-6 involved Elijah (as the Messenger) bringing the people to repentance and restoring Israel to faithfulness and true religion (Mal 3:2-4). If this is so, and if John is Elijah, then how could Jesus, God’s Son and Anointed (cf. the Transfiguration scene, esp. Mk 9:7 par) have to endure suffering and death at this time? Clearly, Israel as a whole has not yet been restored in the manner prophesied by Mal 3:2-4. Jesus’ concluding words turn the tables even more strikingly on the identification of John as Elijah:

“But I relate to you that, indeed, Eliyyah has come, and they did to him as (many thing)s as they wished, even as it has been written about him!” (v. 13)

This must be understood as a radical re-interpretation of the traditional expectation. Yes, John is “Elijah”—in fact, he suffered abuse from the political and religious rulers, much as Elijah himself did! It is a uniquely Christian reworking of Messianic thought which emphasizes the suffering and death of God’s Anointed (Jesus). That this understanding goes back to the words and teachings of Jesus himself cannot be doubted (on objective grounds). His suffering and death are injected right into the middle of the traditional Messianic/eschatological beliefs of the time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes surrounding Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem in the Gospel Tradition, as will be discussed.

Matthew 11:14 (and 17:11-12)

Jesus also identifies John as “Elijah” in Matthew 11:14, but in a very different context, and without the unique interpretation in Mark 9:11-13 par. It is a Matthean detail, incorporated within material otherwise shared by Luke (i.e. “Q”, Matt 11:1-19 / Lk 7:18-35):

“…and, if you are willing to receive (it), this [i.e. John] is Eliyyah, the (one) about to come.”

In contrast with Mark 9:11-13, here Jesus makes an unqualified identification of John with the eschatological figure of Elijah, called “the one (who is) about to come” (cf. my discussion on the background this phrase). This also affirms an imminent expectation of the end (“about to come”), in line with the thinking of many Jews (and nearly all early Christians) of the period. Matthew’s version of the Mark 9:11ff tradition also seems to tone down the radical interpretation given by Jesus, presenting it in more conventional terms (note the words in italics):

“Eliyyah (indeed) comes, and will restore [a)pokatasth/sei] all (thing)s; but I relate to you that Eliyyah already came, and they did not know (this) about him, but did with him as (many thing)s as they wished. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer under them.” (Matt 17:11-12)

Interestingly, Luke has omitted, or does not include, the Mark 9:11-13 tradition, and has nothing corresponding to Matt 11:14. However, the author of the Gospel clearly knew (and, we may assume, accepted) the tradition identifying John as “Elijah”, in light of Mal 4:5-6 (cf. Luke 1:16-17, 76).

2. The coming of the Kingdom

Jesus’ eschatological understanding of the coming of the Kingdom is clear enough from the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, occurring at the beginning of his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition (but not in Luke). There are a number of other sayings which emphasize this aspect as well. I note here the more significant of these.

Mark 9:1 par

In between the confession by Peter (Mk 8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:1-10), there is a short block of sayings by Jesus, which may be outlined as follows:

  • The need for the disciples to “take up his cross” (8:34)
  • Saving/Losing one’s life, i.e. for the sake of Jesus (8:35-37)
  • The Son of Man saying, rel. to the Judgment and faithfulness in following Jesus (8:38)
  • The saying about the coming of the Kingdom of God (9:1)

There is a clear thematic progression, moving from the motif of faithfulness in following Jesus to the eschatological theme of the Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom. The eschatological context of 9:1, which some commentators may be reluctant to admit, seems to be unmistakable in light the Son of Man saying in 8:38 (to be discussed in the next part of this study). Note the parallel:

“…when he [i.e. the Son Man] should come in the splendor of his Father with the holy Messengers” (8:38)
“…the kingdom of God having come in power” (9:1)

Here is the saying in 9:1 (with the Synoptic parallels):

“Amen, I relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power.”
Matthew’s version (16:28) is identical except for the closing words:
“…until they should see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Luke’s wording (9:27) differs slightly, but is otherwise identical to Mark, except for the omission of the final words “in power”.

While it is possible that Luke’s version downplays the eschatological context, Matthew’s version unquestionably enhances it, relating it to the Son of Man sayings in Mk 13:26f and 14:62 par (to be discussed). It is understandable why many commentators, especially those with a strong traditional-conservative leaning, would be uncomfortable with the eschatology expressed in Mk 9:1 par, since Jesus appears to say that some of his disciples would still be alive when the Kingdom of God comes (at the end-time). This has led to interpretations which view the saying in a somewhat different context than that indicated by both the wording and the association with the Son of Man saying in 8:38. These alternate interpretations include:

  • Witnessing the resurrection and/or ascension
  • A vision of Jesus’ in glory (such as the Transfiguration) which presages his subsequent (end-time) appearance in glory
  • The manifestation (“coming”) of the Kingdom through the early Christian (apostolic) mission, accompanied by miracles and the work of the Spirit

The narrative context suggests at least a thematic connection between the saying in 9:1 and the Transfiguration scene which follows, but this association is highly questionable in terms of Jesus’ intended meaning. The last option is probable, at least in terms of the understanding of the writer and overall presentation of Luke-Acts. However, the problem with all of these interpretations is they really do not square with Jesus’ own emphasis that some of the disciples standing with him would not die (“would certainly not taste death”) until they saw the Kingdom come in power/glory. For the events mentioned above as possible solutions, nearly all of the disciples would still be alive, and provide nothing remarkable in confirmation of Jesus’ prediction. On the other hand, the idea that some of the disciples would still be alive at the (end-time) coming of the Kingdom would certainly be worthy of note, establishing a general time-frame for the realization of this event (i.e. by the end of the 1st century A.D.). This is important, since in coincides with the general belief, held, it would seem, by nearly all of the earliest Christians, that end of the current Age (marked by the return of Jesus and the Judgment) would occur very soon. Only after the first generation of believers had begun to die off in significant numbers, did this eschatological expectation start to alter. This can be seen at several points in the later strands of the New Testament, most notably with the tradition involving the “Beloved Disciple” in John 21:20-23.

The obvious doctrinal difficulties related to an imminent eschatology in the sayings of Jesus will be discussed in a separate, supplemental article.

Matthew 12:28 / Luke 11:20

An interesting (and much-discussed) saying of Jesus comes from the so-called “Q” material (i.e. traditions found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). It raises questions as to Jesus’ understanding of just how (and when) the Kingdom of God will come. The saying is incorporated within the Synoptic “Jesus and Beelzebul” episode (Mark 3:22-27 par). In response to accusations that he expels unclean spirits “in (the power) of Beelzebul”, Jesus makes the following statement:

“But if (it is) in the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then (truly) the kingdom of God (has already) arrived [e&fqasen] upon you.” (Matt 12:28)

Luke’s version (11:20, probably reflecting the original form of the saying) really only differs in the use of the expression “finger [da/ktulo$] of God” instead of “Spirit of God”. The verb fqa/nw has the fundamental meaning of arriving at a particular point or location, especially in the sense of reaching it first, or ahead of someone else. It is rare in the New Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Paul’s letters (Rom 9:31; 2 Cor 10:14; Phil 3:16; and 1 Thess 2:16; 4:15). The latter references in 1 Thessalonians are especially significant due to their eschatological emphasis. But how is Jesus’ statement here to be understood? Is the reference to the coming of the Kingdom eschatological? If so, then it would signify that the end-time is being inaugurated in the person and work of Jesus (i.e. his miracles). The use of fqa/nw could be taken to mean that the Kingdom is coming upon people, through the work of Jesus, before they realize it, and, perhaps, in a way that they would not have expected (cf. below on Luke 17:20-21). What is especially important is Jesus’ emphasis that his working of miracles is done directly through the presence and power of God (His “Spirit” or “finger”). This certainly would reflect God’s ruling power and authority (over both human beings and evil spirits). In Jesus’ ministry, the proclamation of the Kingdom is closely connected with his power to work healing miracles (Mk 1:15, 21ff, 32; 3:15-16 par; Matt 4:23ff; Luke 4:40-41, 43; 8:1-2; 9:1-2; 10:17-18, etc).

Luke 17:20-21
[cf. also the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas sayings 3, 113]

Another famous (and difficult) saying regarding the coming of the Kingdom is recorded in Luke 17:20-21. It is part of a block of eschatological teaching (17:22-37), largely identified as so-called “Q” material, but which Matthew incorporates at a different location, in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Matt 24). It begins with a question by certain Pharisees: “When (will) the kingdom of God come(?)”. As is often the case in the Gospel tradition, Jesus gives an ambiguous or unconventional answer to such eschatological questions (cf. on Mk 9:11-13 above). His answer is composed of three statements, two negative and one positive:

  • “the kingdom of God does not come with (a person) keeping (close) watch alongside”
  • “they will not (be able to) say ‘See! here (it is)!’ or ‘There (it is)!'”
  • “see—the kingdom of God is within [e)nto/$] you [pl.]”

The two negative statements seem to express the same basic idea, that the coming/presence of the Kingdom will not be readily visible through observation and sense-perception—at least not by the people at large. In some respects these statements are at odds with others which emphasize the visible signs of the Kingdom (cf. Matt 12:28 par, above). There seem to be two ‘groups’ of people referenced in the first two (negative) statements:

  • Persons giving careful study and consideration to the matter—examining the ‘signs of the times’, the Scriptural prophecies, engaging in learned speculation, etc (i.e. persons perhaps like the very Pharisees inquiring of Jesus)
  • A popular response to apparent signs or claims that the Kingdom is coming, or has come (cf. Luke 21:8 par)

The implication of these statements is that the Kingdom of God comes in a way and manner that the people at large—the learned and unlearned alike—do not (and cannot) realize. This informs the positive statement in verse 21b: “For, see!—the kingdom of God is within you”. The precise meaning of this saying has been much debated and remains controversial, the difficulty centering primarily on the rare preposition (or adverb) e)nto/$ (“within, inside”). The translation “within” or “inside” can be rather misleading, as it suggests an identification of the Kingdom with the Spirit dwelling in and among believers (cf. Rom 14:17; Luke 11:2 v.l.; John 3:5). However, here in vv. 20-21 Jesus is addressing certain inquisitive Pharisees (often his opponents in debate/dispute), rather than his disciples. Also, the use of e)nto/$ with the plural pronoun u(mw=n (“you [pl.]”) suggests something a bit different.

Unfortunately, e)nto/$ is quite rare, occurring in the New Testament only at Matt 23:26; however, the basic denotation is locative (and usually spatial)—something which is located, or takes place, within/inside certain limits or boundaries. To use it in the context of a group of people suggests a meaning akin to “in the midst of” (usually expressed as e)n me/sw|), but with a slightly different emphasis. The idea seems to that the Kingdom of God exists (or is/will be established) in the very midst of the people (esp. the learned Pharisees), without their being aware of it. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus, in the saying as we have it, is referring primarily to himself—i.e., many people, including these Pharisees, do not recognize that the Kingdom is present (has “come near”, Mk 1:15 par, etc) in the person and work of Jesus. It is also possible to understand the saying, and the use of e)nto/$, in a more figurative sense—e.g., that the Kingdom comes, or is present, within the limits of their own expectation (and/or their religious understanding), without their realizing it. This may seem overly subtle, but keep in mind that Jesus’ ministry began with a declaration (Mk 1:15 par) that draws upon traditional Jewish eschatological expectation (regarding the Kingdom), and he continued to make use of similar language and imagery throughout his ministry, often giving it an entirely new meaning. This will be discussed further as we continue in our study on Jesus’ sayings and parables.

One additional difficulty involves the force of the present verb of being (e)stin, “is”) which closes verse 21. There are two ways to understand this:

  • Taken literally, in a temporal sense (i.e. referring to the present), it would mean that the Kingdom has already come, and is present. This would agree with sayings such as Mk 1:15; Matt 12:28 pars. It also would provide confirmation for the idea that the Kingdom is present primarily in the person of Jesus.
  • It may simply reflect an indicative statement describing the nature and character of the Kingdom—i.e. this is what the Kingdom is like, etc—without necessarily referring to time (past-present-future). In other words, he may be saying that, when the Kingdom comes, it will be present in their very midst (without their recognizing it).
Matt 6:9-13 / Luke 11:2-4

Finally, mention should be made of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4). It is not customary for Christians to think of this famous prayer by Jesus from an eschatological viewpoint, but it is likely that this aspect was present in its original form as uttered by Jesus. We have already seen how the idea of the coming of the Kingdom (the wish and petition expressed in the first lines of the prayer) is fundamentally eschatological, both in its background, and as used by Jesus. Similarly, the requests that one not be led “into testing” (Matt 6:13a; Lk 11:4b), and for “rescue” from evil [or from the Evil One] (Matt 6:13b), probably carry an eschatological nuance. A prayer to God for the coming of the Kingdom and deliverance from evil would have been a fundamental component of Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation at the time of Jesus.

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus

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The Synoptic Gospels

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus

We begin our study of the eschatology of the New Testament with the Synoptic Gospels—in particular, the sayings and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition. On the basic approach adopted here, see the introduction to my earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“. The shorter sayings and teachings of Jesus will be examined first, followed by the parables, and concluding with a study of the great “Eschatological Discourse”.

When dealing with the Sayings of Jesus, the situation is complicated considerably for many critical scholars, who, as a matter of principle (and method), seek to distinguish between sayings which are authentic (going back to the words of Jesus) and those which are thought to be largely the product of early Christians in light of their beliefs regarding Jesus, etc. Various “criteria of authenticity” have been developed which help scholars to determine, on objective grounds, the sayings which are more likely to be authentic. Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, tend to accept the Gospel accounts at face value, viewing all (or nearly all) of the recorded sayings as reflecting the actual words of the historical Jesus, allowing for a modest amount of editing and translation (from Aramaic, etc). While I do not reject out of hand nor disregard the critical analyses and theories regarding authenticity—indeed, I often find them to be most helpful and insightful—however, for the purposes of this study, I work from the assumption that the Gospel Tradition preserves the genuine words of Jesus in substance. Only in special cases will I be discussing matters related to the question of authenticity.

Any discussion of the sayings of Jesus, relating to his (and early Christian) eschatology, must start with the declaration that begins his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition.

Mark 1:15 par

Following his baptism by John (Mk 1:9-11), and his time of testing in the desert (1:12-13), we read of Jesus that he

“came into the Galîl proclaiming the good message of God [and saying] that ‘The time has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near! Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message!'” (1:14-15)

This theme which introduces Jesus’ public ministry generally follows the preaching of John the Baptist, as it is recorded in the Gospels (cf. also Josephus, Antiquities 18.116-119). Indeed, in Matthew’s version, John makes the very same declaration: “Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!” (3:2, using “kingdom of Heaven” instead of “…of God”, cp. 4:17). Even though this is not found precisely in the wider Synoptic tradition, it very much fits the tenor of his preaching—on the need for repentance in light of the coming Judgment of God upon humankind. The Synoptic summary of John’s ministry makes this clear:

“…Yohanan, the (one) dunking (people), came to be in the desolate (land) proclaiming a dunking of a change-of-mind(set) [meta/noia, i.e. repentance] unto the release of (one’s) sins. And all (the people in) the area (of) Yehudah and all the Yerushalaim (peop)le traveled out toward him, and were dunked under him in the Yarden river, giving out as one an account of [i.e. confessing/acknowledging] their sins.” (Mk 1:4-5 par)

The eschatological orientation of John’s ministry of baptism, and his preaching, is readily apparent from:

  • The citation of Isa 40:3 in Mk 1:2-3. This passage is one of a number in Isa 40-66 (Deutero-Isaiah) which had been given a Messianic interpretation by Jews in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. (cf. the recent survey of Messianic passages). There is every reason to believe that John, much like the Community of the Qumran texts (1QS 8:14-16), identified himself with the herald “crying in the desert”, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord (at the end-time). This is made explicit in Jn 1:19-23. According to certain strands of traditional Jewish eschatology, this coming of the Lord (YHWH) for Judgment was realized through, or along with, the end-time appearance of YHWH’s chosen representative (Anointed One, “Messiah”).
  • Details from the traditions in Matthew and Luke (the so-called “Q” material):
    (a) John’s preaching of the need for repentance is specifically connected with “the anger (of God) (be)ing [i.e. that is] about (to come)” (Matt 3:7-9 / Lk 3:7-8), i.e. the coming Judgment
    (b) the images of the axe (cutting down the tree) and of the harvest (separating grain from chaff) also refer to this idea of God’s impending Judgment (Matt 3:10, 12 / Lk 3:9, 17)

Given these facts, there is little reason to think that Jesus’ declaration in Mark 1:15 par is meant in a fundamentally different sense than that of Matt 3:2 (as a summary of John’s preaching). Thus we can isolate three main elements, or aspects, of Jesus’ statement:

  1. The coming of God—his kingdom, i.e. God as king/ruler over the world
  2. The nearness of His Coming—that it is about to take place, and
  3. The need for repentance—in light of God’s coming rule (incl. Judgment on the wicked)

There can be little doubt that this reflected John’s proclamation to the people of Judea, and Jesus, it would seem, began his ministry with essentially the same message. However, in the case of Jesus, the situation is complicated greatly by the many and varied references to “the kingdom (of God)” in his sayings and parables, as recorded in the Gospels. He spoke quite often about this Kingdom, much of which has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition, bringing out a number of distinct points of emphasis; for Jesus, the Kingdom (basilei/a) was a multi-faceted concept and symbol. I have discussed this extensively in an earlier two-part article, as well as in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Part 5). It will be worth summarizing that analysis briefly here.

These are the primary aspects most commonly found in the sayings and parables. As part of my earlier study, based on the entirety of the evidence, I isolated four basic senses of the term “Kingdom (of God)” in the New Testament:

  1. The eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
  2. An eschatological Kingdom (on earth), which can be understood in two different aspects:
    a. An absolute sense: New heavens and new earth (preceded by judgment on the World)
    b. A contingent sense: Messianic kingdom (preceded by judgment of the Nations)
  3. The presence of Christ—His life, work and teaching, death and resurrection
  4. The presence of God/Christ (through the Spirit) in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers

The fundamental idea informing the phrase “Kingdom of God” is that of the rule of God—that is, His governing power and authority—coming to be present, or made manifest, on earth, in a manner beyond what one sees in the natural order of things. In this regard, and in light of the range of meaning outlined above, it is possible to narrow the focus in Jesus’ usage to three primary aspects:

  • The coming Judgment of God upon the world, after which the righteous (believers) will enter the Divine/Eternal Life and receive heavenly reward [sense #2a above]
  • The establishment of an end-time Kingdom (rule of God) upon earth, however this is understood precisely, with judgment (of the wicked) and transformation of the social/religious order of things [sense #2b above]
  • The Kingdom of God is manifest and realized in the person and presence of Jesus [sense #3 above]

We must ask, which of these three aspects is being emphasized in the declaration of Mark 1:15 par? The first two aspects reflect different sides of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation—that is, of an (imminent) future eschatology. The third aspect represents what we may call “realized” eschatology—i.e., events and attributes understood as related to the future are realized (for believers) in the present. As discussed above, the parallel with John’s preaching strongly indicates that Jesus is drawing upon the common eschatological expectation—that the end-time appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment, was soon to take place.

This is the interpretation accepted by many, if not most, critical commentators today, and it serves to epitomize the fundamental difficulty in dealing with early Christian eschatology. For traditional-conservative scholars and readers of Scripture, the problem is particularly acute, and may be summarized this way:

  • If Jesus proclaimed that the coming of the Kingdom—and, with it, the end of the current Age—was close at hand, then it opens up the possibility of his being in error on that point.
  • Yet, at the same time, to understand his view differently (and to avoid the doctrinal problem), risks distorting or neglecting the straightforward sense of his words, and how they would have been understood by people at the time.

Before proceeding any further on this thorny interpretative question (one of the most difficult in modern New Testament studies), let us examine the actual words used by Jesus in Mark 1:15; there are three phrases, or components to his declaration:

1. peplh/rwtai o( kairo/$ (“the time has been [ful]filled”). The verb plhro/w has the basic meaning “fill (up)”, sometimes in the more general sense of “complete, bring to completion, fulfill,” etc. Here the expression means that the period of time (and all that it entails), leading up to the point (kairo/$) when a particular event will take place, has been filled (i.e. completed). For a similar example, using the related verb plh/qw, see Luke 2:21-22. It precludes the idea that Jesus is announcing something which is still to come in the (distant) future; the time is now, at his very speaking. There is doubtless also an allusion to the fulfillment of prophecy, where the verb plhro/w is frequently used (cf. Luke 4:21, etc).

2. kai\ h&ggiken h( basilei/a tou= qeou= (“and the kingdom of God has come near”). However one understands the expression “kingdom of God”, it is quite clear what Jesus says about it: “it has come near” (h&ggiken). The verb e)ggi/zw is related to the adverb e)ggu/$ (“close”), and means “come (or bring) close”; the intransitive usage is more common (“come close/near”). It can be understood either in a spatial or temporal sense. In a religious (and theological) context, it can refer to persons (i.e. priests, the righteous) approaching God, as well as the reverse—of God coming near to his people. For example, cf. Exod 3:5; Lev 21:21; Ezek 40:46 (all LXX); James 4:8; Heb 7:19; Eph 2:13, 17. One may also come near to God in a figurative sense (implying a religious attitude), as in Isa 29:13, etc. For the temporal usage, the time when something will occur (i.e. is about to take place), cf. LXX Num 24:17; Isa 26:17; Hab 3:2, etc.

The background to the eschatological use of e)ggi/zw is found in the (later) Prophets ([Deutero-]Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc LXX). It is used in reference to the coming of the “Day of YHWH”, which is the time of salvation and/or Judgment—Isa 13:6; 50:8; 51:5; 56:6; Ezek 7:4; 22:4; 30:3; cf. also Joel 1:5; 2:1; 3:14; Obad 15; Zeph 1:7, 14. The New Testament usage is primarily based on (Deutero-)Isaiah. There are 42 occurrences of the verb. Besides the ordinary sense of coming near (to a place, etc), it is used in three ways:

  • The eschatological sense—that the time of God’s appearance (the day [h(me/ra] of Judgment, salvation, etc) has come, or is coming, near. The third person perfect form h&ggiken is almost always used. Rom 13:12; Heb 10:25; James 5:8; 1 Pet 4:7; cf. also Acts 7:17 for the similar idea of a promised time coming to pass.
  • The sense of believers coming near and encountering God (cf. above)—James 4:8; Eph 2:13, 17. Note Philo’s use of the verb in On the Unchangableness of God §161; On the Special Laws II.57; cf. also Psalm 33:18; 119:151; 145:18 LXX.
  • The special sense of Jesus’ time (or “hour”), i.e. the time of his Passion, coming near—Matt 26:45-46 par; cf. also Lk 4:13.

Jesus’ use of the verb is unquestionably eschatological, along the lines indicated above. This is clear when one compares the declaration in Mark 1:15 (par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7) with the statements in Luke 21:8, 20, 28. One should also note the distinctive (eschatological) use of the related adverb e)ggu/$ (“close/near”) in Mark 13:28-29 par; Luke 19:11; Rev 1:3; 22:10; cf. also Rom 13:11; Phil 4:5.

[More more on the verb e)ggi/zw, etc, see the article by H. Preisker in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT], Vol 2, pp. 330-2.]

3. metanoei=te kai\ pisteu/ete e)n tw=| eu)aggeli/w| (“change your mind and trust in the good message”). There are two aspects to this statement: (a) people are to change their way of thinking (and acting), i.e. “repent”, and (b) they are to trust in the “good message” (eu)agge/lion) of salvation. The verb metaneu/w (lit. change [one’s] mind) and the idea of repentance featured prominently in the preaching of John the Baptist (cf. the discussion above). It is not especially common in Jesus’ own preaching, as recorded in the Gospels, but it is certainly present (cf. below). The word eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. ‘gospel’) is also surprisingly rare, especially in the traditional Christian sense of the “good news” about Jesus (cf. Mark 8:35; 10:29; 14:9). For the righteous (and sinners who repent), the coming of the kingdom of God is good news, for several reasons:

  • It represents the coming of God and the establishment of his rule on earth—entailing the elimination of evil and wickedness.
  • The righteous will be delivered from the power and influence of the wicked (and of sin, etc).
  • The righteous will be saved/rescued from the coming Judgment, passing through it into eternal life.

This eschatological context of the “good message” is confirmed by the use of the term in Mark 13:10 par; the implications of this particular verse will be discussed in the upcoming article on the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Matthew’s version (4:17) of the declaration in Mark 1:15 is briefer and uses the expression “kingdom of the Heavens” rather than “kingdom of God”:

“Change your mind(set)—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!”

This matches the declaration by the Baptist (3:2), and is essentially repeated in 10:7. These words of Jesus are not present at a corresponding point in the Gospel of Luke, where the public ministry of Jesus is introduced from a different standpoint—the citation of Isa 61:1 and the episode at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30). However, Luke does still depict Jesus as proclaiming the Kingdom during the Galilean ministry (4:43; 8:1, etc). In particular, the central declaration (of Mk 1:15 par) is preserved in Luke 10:9, 11: “The kingdom of God has come close [h&ggiken] upon you!” This reflects the Synoptic tradition of Jesus’ sending out his disciples to follow his example, as his representatives, doing the same work (healing miracles, etc) and proclaiming the same message—the coming of the Kingdom and the need for repentance (Mark 3:14f; 6:7-13 par; cf. Matt 10:7; Lk 9:2). Thus this message was not limited to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but continued on through much of the Galilean period (as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition).

The eschatological emphasis in Jesus teaching, as epitomized by the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, may not have defined entirely his teaching and understanding of the Kingdom of God (and its coming), but it was certainly the central starting point in his public ministry. It is important to keep this in mind as we proceed to examine the other sayings and parables found in the Synoptic Gospels.

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).

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.

Note of the Day – May 7 (John 11:26a)

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John 11:26a

Today we will be looking at the second half of Jesus’ statement in Jn 11:25b-26a (the first half was discussed in the prior note). Here again is the statement:

“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live; and every (one) living and trusting in me shall (certainly) not die away into the Age”

As I discussed, the first half refers to the promise of life to the believer who should happen to die physically (as in the case of Lazarus). This “life” (zwh=) reflects both the physical reality of resurrection, usually understood as occurring at the end-time (v. 24), and the realization of the future (eternal) life. Both aspects should be recognized in the verb zh/setai (“he will live“). Now let us consider the second half in v. 26a:

kai\ pa=$ o( zw=n kai\ pisteu/wn ei)$ e)me\ ou) mh/ a)poqa/nh| ei)$ to\n ai)w=na
“and every (one) living and trusting in me will (certainly) not die away into the Age”

Even more so than in v. 25b, here there is a profound play on two meanings of the verb za/w, used as a qualifying participle, “the (one) living [zw=n]”:

  1. “living” in the ordinary sense of one who is still alive (physically)
  2. “living” in the sense of one who shares in eternal life (in the present)

The second aspect is indicated by the parallel use of the participles zw=n (“living”) and pisteu/wn (“trusting”). On the surface, one could understand this simply as a believer who is (still) alive; however, the use of the verb za/w (along with the related noun zwh=) in the Gospel of John strongly indicates that the divine/eternal life, possessed by God the Father and the Son, is meant. The one who trusts (believes) in Jesus shares in this life, in a fundamental sense. This promise of life is expressed by the adjective pa=$ (“all, every”)—every one who trusts will experience (eternal) life.

Let us consider for a moment the parallel established in vv. 25b-26a:

  • (if) he should die away, he will live
  • the one living…will not die away

Conceptually, I would outline the relationship between these phrases as follows:

  • die away (physical death)
    —will live (resurrection / new life)
    ——believer is alive
    —living (experiencing eternal life)
  • will not die away (final death)

The final phrase “he will not die away into the Age” requires a bit more discussion. It involves the expression “into the Age” (ei)$ to\n ai)w=na) which is related to “the life of the Age” ([h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh=). The idea of dying “into the Age (to Come)” refers to the eschatological sense of a final or “second” death which extends into the distant (everlasting) future. This is tied to the concept of the end-time Judgment by God on humankind. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away”) is used in a similar sense (and context) in Jn 8:21, 24, where we find the specific expression of dying in one’s sins. The person who dies without trusting in Jesus will remain under the anger of God and will experience the Judgment which leads to final death (cf. 3:19, 36, etc). This is expressed clearly in 5:24, where it is said of the believer that “he does not come into (the) judgment”. Jesus’ statement in this verse, which serves as the climax of his exposition in vv. 19-24, is worth quoting here in full:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, that the (one) hearing my word and trusting in the (One) sending me holds life of the age [i.e. eternal life], and he does not come into (the) Judgment, but he has stepped (over) out of death (and) into life”

This is one of the best examples in the Gospel of “realized” eschatology. The one hearing and trusting in Jesus (and in God the Father through Jesus) holds eternal life—he/she does not merely come to possess it or enter it at the end-time, but holds it already now, in the present. The language in v. 24b is clearly eschatological, and yet it expresses a different reality. The present tense of ou)k e&rxetai (“he does not come”) is parallel to e&xei (“he holds”)—i.e., just as the believer already holds eternal life in the present, so he/she also is already guaranteed (now in the present) not to come into the Judgment. This is expressed in a different way by the perfect form of the verb metabai/nw, a verb which can be difficult to translate in English. Literally it means something like “step with(in)”, usually indicating a change of place—i.e., “step across, step over”. Here in verse 24, the closing phrase is “he has stepped over/across out of death (and) into life”. Quite often the perfect form (here metabe/bhken) signifies a past action or condition which continues into the present. In the context of Jesus’ statement this is a powerful declaration that the one who trusts has already stepped into life—that is, has already experienced the resurrection and possesses the eternal life normally associated with the future (end-time) state of the righteous.

Note of the Day – May 6 (John 11:25b)

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John 11:25

Jesus’ statement in John 11:25b-26a follows the “I Am” saying in v. 25a—”I am the standing up [i.e. resurrection] and the life”, which I discussed in the previous daily note. Verse 25b-26a is a two-fold statement which explains this saying; it also serves to correct Martha’s misunderstanding (v. 24), according to the Johannine discourse-format. Her misunderstanding was addressed first in the “I Am” saying, shifting the focus from the end-time resurrection of the dead to Jesus’ own person, in the present. The exposition continues in vv. 25b-26a:

“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live; and every one living and trusting in me shall (certainly) not die away into the Age”

There is a poetic parallelism to this statement:

  • the one trusting—dies—will live (again)
  • every one living—trusting—will not die

Today we will be looking at the first part of this statement (in verse 25b):

o( pisteu/wn ei)$ e)me\ ka*n a)poqa/nh| zh/setai
“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live”

There is some question as to the precise meaning of living and dying, life and death, in this verse. Two main possibilities have been recognized:

  • It refers to physical death and resurrection
  • It refers to spiritual death and new (eternal) life

Because the words zwh= and za/w (“life”, “live”) in the Gospel of John usually refer to something akin to “eternal life”, many commentators assume the latter interpretation above. However, I believe that this is incorrect. The idea of a person being dead “spiritually”, while a popular concept and expression in modern Christianity, is hard to find in the New Testament. There is certainly precious little evidence for it in the Gospel of John. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away”) occurs 28 times in John, and always, it would seem, in reference to the ordinary (physical) death of a human being. The same is true of the adjective nekro/$ (“dead”), used substantively as a collective (“the dead”, i.e. people who have died). Therefore we can fairly assume that a)poqnh/skw has the same sense here in vv. 25-26. The context is clearly that of the resurrection from the dead (to be illustrated in the case of Lazarus).

However, it is important to understand the conceptual background of “life” and “death/dying” in the Gospel. The fundamental emphasis is eschatological. This is confirmed by the fact that the word “life” (zwh=) is regularly used in the expression “(the) life of the Age” ([h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh=), typically translated in English as “eternal life”. That customary translation, however, obscures the original sense of the expression, which refers to the Age to Come. In ancient thought, shared by Israelites and Jews, the future age represents a period of blessedness, in which the righteous will share in the heavenly (divine) life. Often this was understood in a realistic sense, of a future time (and/or condition) established on earth, expressed in Jewish thought as the “Kingdom of God”. Others came to view the idea in a more symbolic sense, reflecting the divine/eternal life that the righteous would experience with God in heaven.

Perhaps the earliest occurrence of the expression corresponding to ai)w/nio$ zwh= is in Daniel 12:2, where the resurrection of the righteous is in view. In Hebrew it is <l*ou yY@j^ (µayy¢ ±ôl¹m), where the word <l*ou essentially refers to something distant—i.e. that of the distant past or future, often in the sense of time stretching out into the far distant (“everlasting”) future. The temporal aspect of life without end is clearly expressed in Jewish writings such as the Qumran 1QS 4:7 and the Damascus Document [CD] 3:20. By the 1st century A.D., this aspect was supplemented by the idea of “eternal life” in a qualitative sense, whereby the “Age to Come” had a character completely different from the current Age (“this Age”). While the expression “life of the Age” in John retains something of the temporal background, the overall meaning has shifted to the qualitative—it reflects the life of God the Father (and the Son) in which the righteous (believers) will come to share. In this sense, eternal does not refer to duration, but to its Divine character.

The traditional contrast between “this Age” and “the Age to Come” has also been reinterpreted within the Gospel to reflect a different sort of dualism—the world (o( ko/smo$) vs. God, the realm below vs. that which is above, etc. By the “world” we should understand ko/smo$ in its fundamental sense of order, that is, the current world-order, the arrangement of things and how they appear. In Johannine dualism, this world-order is governed by darkness, evil and sin, and is set precisely in contrast to the realm of God, characterized by light and truth. The presence of sin ultimately leads to (1) physical death, and (2) judgment by God (after death). Thus the ordinary human condition—that of mortal beings—ends in death, realized in these two aspects. After physical death, there is a kind of final or “second” death which is the fate of the wicked (cf. Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).

Let us now consider Jn 11:25b in light of this background. I would argue that “death” in Johannine thought and expression has nothing whatever to do with the Spirit, or to the “spirit” of humankind; it is entirely separate, belonging to “the World”—the realm of sin and darkness. Human beings are bound under the conditions of the sinful world-order (ko/smo$), and are destined to suffer both physical and final (eschatological) death. Jesus is referring to the first aspect: physical, mortal death.

“even (if) he should die away [a)poqa/nh|]…”

The subjunctive here indicates a conditional clause, i.e. if a person should die, if he/she happens to die, just as happened to Lazarus. The promise of the statement is, that if a person trusts in Jesus, and happens to die (physically), that person will live (zh/setai). In the immediate context, this last phrase would seem to refer to the future resurrection, as Martha assumed in v. 24. Yet Jesus is actually saying that the person will live again now. This must be understood on two levels:

  • In the context of the narrative, the impending resurrection of Lazarus
  • In the sense of what may be called a “realized” eschatology

By “realized” eschatology is meant the idea that believers in Christ experience the essential reality of the future life in the present. In other words, the resurrection and “life of the Age” (eternal life) will be experienced through the presence of Jesus in and with the believer. In the Gospel of John, as elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. the letters of Paul), this divine/eternal life is realized primarily through the abiding presence and work of the Spirit. There is no mention of the Spirit in the Lazarus episode, it has to be understood based on other passages in the Gospel. I will be dealing with the relationship between the Spirit and Life (cf. Jn 6:63) in a subsequent series of notes.

It is now time to proceed to the second part of Jesus’ statement, in v. 26a. This I will do in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – April 26 (John 11:24)

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John 11:24

In the previous note, I examined the statement by Jesus to Martha in verse 23 (“Your brother will stand up [again]”), observing that it holds the same place in this dialogue as the central statement/sayings by Jesus in the major Discourses. Similarly, Martha’s response in v. 24 reflects the same discourse pattern, whereby the person(s) hearing Jesus misunderstand the true meaning of his words. This is indicated clearly here:

“Martha says to him, ‘I see [i.e. know] that he will stand up [a)nasth/setai] in the standing-up [a)na/stasi$] in the last day’.”

She is referring to the belief that human beings (the righteous, at least) will be raised from the dead by God at the end-time. While evidence for such a belief among Israelites in the Old Testament is ambiguous at best, in the exilic and post-exilic periods it appears to have been more common, as seen from references such as Daniel 12:2; Sirach 46:12; 49:10; 2 Macc 7:9ff; 12:43-46; and 1 Enoch 91:10. The promise of resurrection in these passages is for the righteous ones; evidence for belief in a universal resurrection (of righteous and wicked both) is not clearly attested prior to the 1st century A.D. (cf. 2/4 Esdras 7:32ff). According to both the New Testament and Josephus, some Israelites and Jews (i.e. the Sadducees) in the time of Jesus did not believe in a resurrection (Mark 12:18ff par; Acts 23:8; Antiquities 19.3-5ff; War 2.11ff, 154ff). Scholars continue to debate whether, or to what extent, an end-time resurrection was accepted by the Community of the Qumran texts. While early Christians held firmly to a belief in Jesus’ resurrection, there may have been some who had doubt regarding the end-time resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:12-13).

The noun a)na/stasi$, derived from a)ni/sthmi (“[make] stand up”), came to be a technical term for both the end-time resurrection and, among Christians, the resurrection of Jesus. The noun is frequently used in this sense in the New Testament, both in the book of Acts and the letters. However, interestingly, in the Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus typically is referenced by the verb e)gei/rw (“rise, raise”), with the related noun e&gersi$ in Matthew 27:53.

Martha confesses a belief in the end-time resurrection (a)na/stasi$) and understands Jesus’ statement as referring to this event. From the standpoint of the Gospel writer, the misunderstanding involves wordplay and shades of meaning. While a)ni/sthmi and a)na/stasi$ can be used in the technical sense of the end-time resurrection, Jesus is using them in the more fundamental sense of giving life (i.e. to the dead). This can be seen by an examination of Jesus’ famous exposition in verses 25-26, which we will begin in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – March 27 (Son of Man sayings in Matthew and Luke)

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Having examined the Son of Man sayings in the core Synoptic (Triple) Tradition, it will be useful here to survey the additional sayings and references found in Matthew and Luke (but not in Mark). While these most likely derive from separate lines of tradition, they all relate fundamentally to the sayings already discussed. I begin with the so-called “Q” material—sayings and traditions found in Matthew and Luke.

The “Q” Sayings

There are between 7 and 9 distinct sayings from the “Q” material. The first three (as they occur in Luke) tend to focus on the earthly life and suffering of Jesus, while the remainder have an eschatological (Judgment) emphasis.

Luke 7:34 / Matt 11:19—Here we seem to have a simple self-reference by Jesus, dealing with his behavior/lifestyle during his ministry on earth. However, the expression “the Son of Man has come…” may allude to a certain eschatological and/or Messianic expectation (cf. below). In both Luke and Matthew, this saying is part of a (fixed) block of material dealing with the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist (Lk 7:18-35 par).

Luke 9:58 / Matt 8:20—The emphasis is on the poverty and hardship endured by Jesus during his earthly ministry:

“The foxes have holes/lairs (for dwelling), and the birds of the heaven(s) (have place)s to put down house [lit. tent], but the Son of Man does not have (any)where to bend (down) his head (for the night)” (Lk 9:58)

This also is part of a (fixed) sequence of sayings on the theme of discipleship. A motif of self-sacrifice is tied to the suffering and hardship of Jesus—i.e., his identification with the human condition.

Luke 11:30 / Matt 12:40—In this saying, Jesus draws upon the Old Testament story of Jonah, as a type or figure of his upcoming death. The saying is formulated quite differently in Luke and Matthew, but it clearly derives from a common tradition. It combines the idea of suffering (his death) with the scene of Judgment in Lk 11:29-32 par—two important aspects of the Son of Man sayings in the Gospels.

Luke 12:8-9 / Matt 10:32-33—This saying presents a vivid scene of the Judgment and the heavenly tribunal, or courtroom, with the Son of Man playing a central role in the proceedings. It was discussed briefly in the previous note, in relation to the corresponding saying in Mk 8:38 par.

Luke 12:10 / Matt 12:32—Another Son of Man saying follows immediately in Luke (by way of “catchword” bonding), while in Matthew it is found in a different location, joined to the Synoptic parallel in v. 31 (Mk 3:28-29). As I noted previously, the Synoptic saying in Mark raises the possibility that “Son of Man” could have originally been intended (by Jesus) in the general sense of “human being(s)”. However, in the context of the “Q” version in Matthew and Luke, it is almost certainly understood as a (self-)title of Jesus. Luke has more clearly preserved the eschatological/Judgment setting of the saying.

Luke 12:40 / Matt 24:44—Here the Son of Man saying is part of a short parable (Lk 12:39-40 par), and has a definite eschatological emphasis, warning Jesus’ disciples of the suddenness of the Son of Man’s appearance:

“(So) you also must come to be prepared, (in) that [i.e. because] (it is at) an hour of which you are not thinking/aware (that) the Son of Man comes!” (Lk 12:40)

Luke has included it as part of the eschatological material in chapter 12, while Matthew has set it in the eschatological “discourse” (chaps. 24-25 = Lk 21:5-36) during the final period in Jerusalem.

Luke 17:24, 26, 30 / Matt 24:27, 37, 39—There are three references to the Son of Man in the eschatological “Q” material of Lk 17:24-37. Matthew has included these sayings as part of the Jerusalem eschatological “discourse”, in a different arrangement:

Again, in both versions, the emphasis is on the suddenness of the Son of Man’s appearance at the end time:

“Very (much) as the flash (of lightning) flashing out of the (one place) under the heaven(s) into the (other place) under the heaven(s), so it will be (with) the Son of Man [in his day]” (Lk 17:24)

Matthew’s version is expressed in more conventional imagery—parousi/a (parousia) being a common early Christian (technical) term for the return of Jesus:

“For just as the flash (of lightning) comes out from the rising up (of the sun) [i.e. the east] and shines unto the sinking (of the sun) [i.e. in the west], so will be the Son of Man’s (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a, i.e. his coming/return]” (Matt 24:27)

The Son of Man’s appearance will be both sudden and all-encompassing, like a flash of lightning which fills the sky from one end to the other. The Scriptural allusions in Lk 17:26-30 par—Noah and Lot [Matthew only refers to Noah]—involve Judgment by God upon humankind, expressed through natural disaster and destruction. Such natural phenomena were typically seen as accompanying the end-time Judgment (the “Day of YHWH”) in the Scriptural prophecies, such as those cited by Jesus in Mk 13:24-25 par (Isa 13:10; 34:4). It essentially reflects the idea of theophany—the presence of God breaking through into the natural world.

Luke includes certain elements in this section which are unique to his Gospel, such as the two references to Lot (vv. 28-29, 32-33). Both are likely part of the original tradition. Matthew may have omitted the reference (cp. Matt 24:37-39) for the sake of brevity. Similarly, a reference to Lot’s wife is a natural illustration for the saying in v. 31, which has a parallel in Mk 13:15-16. More significant is the Son of Man saying in verse 22:

“The days will come when you will set (your) impulse [i.e. heart/desire] upon seeing one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see (it)”

The expression “days of the Son of Man” probably is meant to fit the pattern of the sayings which follow—”days of Noah”, “days of Lot” (vv. 27-28). It refers to the time of the Son of Man’s appearing. More curious is the formulation “one of the days of…”, the precise meaning of which remains uncertain. Perhaps it serves to intensify the dramatic tension of the illustration—i.e., people will not be able to see anything, not even a glimpse, of the Son of Man’s appearance, no matter how much they long for it. As the following sayings make clear, this will be due to the death and destruction which will come upon human beings at the time of the Judgment. Only the elect/chosen ones (i.e., believers in Jesus) will be saved from this fate. Here seeing the Son of Man is synonymous with experiencing the salvation/deliverance which he brings (cf. Lk 21:28, etc).

Sayings and References found only in Luke

Apart from Lk 17:20, mentioned above, the following occurrences of the expression “Son of Man” are found only in Luke:

  • Lk 6:22—This is the Lukan Beatitude corresponding to Matt 5:11; while in Matthew Jesus uses the expression “on account of me“, the Lukan form is “on account of the Son of Man“. It is a clear example of “Son of Man” as a self-reference by Jesus, being readily understood as such in the early Tradition. It also draws upon the motif of suffering and persecution which is central to a number of the Son of Man sayings. The Judgment setting of the Beatitude form (on this, cf. my earlier series on the Beatitudes) comes across more clearly in Luke’s version (6:20-26).
  • Lk 18:8—The parable in vv. 1-8a concludes with a Son of Man saying (v. 8b) which may originally have been given in a separate context. It serves as a kind of eschatological warning, and an exhortation, to Jesus’ followers, that they remain faithful despite the hardship and persecution they may experience in the current wicked Age:
    “The Son of Man, (at his) coming, will he (truly) find (any) trust (in God) upon the earth?”
    The coming of the Son of Man, in the context of the Lukan narrative, must be understood in light of the earlier eschatological material in chap. 17 (cf. above).
  • Lk 19:10—This saying appears to be a “floating” tradition, which is found in different locations (i.e., Lk 9:55; Matt 18:11) in the various manuscripts. Its inclusion at the end of the Zaccheus episode (19:1-9) may be a Lukan adaptation of the tradition. The saying itself refers to the earthly ministry of Jesus, with a possible allusion to his (sacrificial) suffering and death (cf. Mk 10:45). The emphasis on salvation—the Son of Man’s role in saving sinners—is unique here among these sayings in the Synoptics, being more prominent in the Son of Man sayings in John (to be discussed in the next note).
  • Lk 21:36—The end-time Judgment and the heavenly tribunal are certainly in view in this saying (cf. 12:40 par), with the Son of Man even more clearly in the position of Judge—”…to stand in front of the Son of Man”.
  • Lk 22:48—On this addition to the Son of Man references in the Passion narrative, cf. the earlier note.
  • Lk 24:7—The words of the Angel in the Lukan resurrection scene refer back directly to the Passion predictions by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par).

Sayings and References found only in Matthew

  • Matt 10:23—In Matthew’s narrative, this saying is part of Jesus’ instruction to the Twelve prior to being sent out on their mission (vv. 5ff). It includes sayings and teaching which are found in different locations in the other Gospels. While it all fits thematically, portions such as vv. 17-23 seem decidedly out of place. Indeed the instruction/exhortation in verses 17-23 is much more appropriate to a setting closer to Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection (cf. Mk 13:9-13 and the Last Supper Discourses [chs. 13-17] in John). In its original context, v. 23 almost certainly was eschatological, referring to the end-time coming of the Son of Man, as in many of the passages discussed above. However, the narrative setting here in Matthew creates an obvious chronological difficulty.
  • Matt 13:37, 41—There are two Son of Man references in the parable of the Weeds (i.e., Jesus’ explanation in vv. 36-43, cf. vv. 24-30). Verse 37 is unique in the Synoptic Gospels with its apparent allusion to the divine pre-existence of the Son of Man (otherwise found only in the Gospel of John). It no doubt also refers to the earthly ministry of Jesus. Verse 41 draws upon the image of the Son of Man as God’s representative overseeing the end-time Judgment (cf. the passages discussed above, and in the prior note).
  • Matt 16:13—In the episode of Peter’s confession, Jesus (in Matthew’s version) asks, “Who do men count [i.e. consider] the Son of Man to be?”. In Mk 8:27 par it is: “Who do men count me to be?”. Cf. on Lk 6:22 above, for the interchangeability with “Son of Man” as a self-reference of Jesus.
  • Matt 16:28—Matthew’s version of the saying in Mk 9:1 par may reflect an adaptation influenced by the earlier Son of Man reference in v. 27 (cf. Mk 8:38). Compare:
    “…until they should see the Kingdom of God having come in power” (Mk)
    “…until they should see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (Mt)
    The result is a saying with a more pronounced Christological emphasis (cf. Lk 23:42, etc).
  • Matt 19:28—This saying has been discussed in an earlier note. It may properly belong to the “Q” material (cp. Lk 22:29-30), but the reference to the Son of Man is unique to Matthew’s version. It draws upon the image of Jesus’ exaltation, which is otherwise found in the Son of Man sayings only in Mk 14:62 par, though it may also be inferred from the very idea of the Son of Man coming to earth (from Heaven) at the time of Judgment.
  • Matt 25:31—The eschatological image of the Son of Man, at the beginning of the parable (vv. 31-46), very much follows the Synoptic sayings in Mk 8:38; 13:26 par, etc. This is the clearest Judgment scene involving the Son of Man in the Gospels.
  • Matt 26:2—This saying by Jesus, echoing the earlier Passion predictions, has been utilized by Matthew in his introduction of the Passion narrative.

The next daily note will survey the dozen or so Son of Man sayings and references in the Gospel of John.

Note of the Day – March 25 (Mk 8:38; 13:26; 14:62)

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One major group of Son of Man sayings are eschatological—they refer to the coming of the Son of Man at the end-time, in connection with God’s (final) Judgment upon the world. Early Christians, along with most believers today, understood these sayings as referring to the future return of Jesus. However, viewed in this light, the sayings would have made little or no sense to people in Jesus’ own time. Even his close disciples could scarcely grasp the idea of his death and resurrection, prior to their occurrence; in this context, reference to his future return would have been unintelligible. Some critical commentators would treat such sayings as creations of the Church which have been projected back and set on Jesus’ lips. I find this to be most unlikely, given the apparent authenticity of the Son of Man sayings (on objective grounds), as discussed previously.

More plausible is the critical theory that, at the historical level, Jesus, in these sayings, is not referring to himself, but to a separate heavenly/divine figure called “the Son of Man”, inspired by Daniel 7:13 (and subsequent tradition). A close examination of the eschatological sayings (cf. below) shows, I think, that this view is possible; however, there are still serious problems with it. In what is arguably the best-established tradition (Mk 14:62 par, discussed below), Jesus is clearly identifying himself with this heavenly/divine figure. The same may be said for any number of the other eschatological sayings.

The “Son of Man” figure in these sayings is clearly derived from the being “like a son of man” (vn`a$ rb^K=, k§»ar °§n¹š) in Dan 7:13. While the book of Daniel was immensely influential on Jewish thought and belief in the first centuries B.C.-A.D., reference to this passage (and the “Son of Man” figure) is surprisingly absent from the Qumran texts, and other writings of the period. There is really only one contemporary parallel to the eschatological usage by Jesus: the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), often dated by scholars to the time of Jesus and the early Gospel tradition (early-mid 1st cent. A.D.). Equally inspired by Daniel, the Similitudes depict a heavenly figure, called by the title “Son of Man” (among other titles), who will function both as divinely-appointed Redeemer and Judge. There are definite parallels to the figure-type with whom Jesus identifies himself in the Gospels. For more on this subject, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with the supplemental note on Dan 7:13.

There are three eschatological Son of Man sayings in the core Synoptic tradition—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 par—the last two of which are closely connected and relate to the Passion narrative. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

Mark 8:38

“For whoever would feel shame (because) of me and my [words] in this adulterous and sinful (period of) coming-to-be [i.e. generation], even (so) the Son of Man will feel shame (because) of him when He should come in the splendor of His Father with the holy Messengers”

This saying follows the first Passion prediction by Jesus (v. 31), and is part of a short block of teaching on the theme of discipleship (8:34-9:1). We see how it is conceivable that Jesus might be referring to a heavenly being separate from himself. However, the parallelism within the saying, together with Jesus’ frequent use of the expression “son of man” as a self-reference, makes this somewhat unlikely here. At any rate, it is clear that the “Son of Man” plays a role in the Judgment, as a witness, it would seem, for or against the human being. The basis of the Judgment, and the Son of Man’s witness, is the reaction of the person to Jesus and his words. The verb e)paisxunomai essentially means “bring shame [ai)sxunomai] upon [e)pi] (oneself)”, but sometimes in the sense of experiencing or feeling shame (within oneself) because of someone or something. The person—that is, the one who is supposed to be a disciple—who feels shame because of Jesus, will suffer a similar (reciprocal) fate in the time of Judgment.

The parallel passage in Luke (9:23-27) follows Mark closely, including the saying in v. 26. Two small differences are worth noting:

  • Instead of phrase “in the splendor of his Father”, Luke reads “in his splendor and (that of) the Father”, emphasizing the Son of Man’s own glory, which he has together with the Father. This formulation could indicate a slight Christological adaptation.
  • In the following (concluding) verse (27), Luke’s version generalizes the saying somewhat. Mark reads “…will not taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power”. Luke omits the qualification “…having come in power”, softening the eschatological emphasis.

Matthew has a rather different Son of Man saying at this point (Matt 16:27); it may stem from a separate tradition, or it may simply represent a generalization of the saying in Mk 8:38 par—regarding the role of the Son of Man in the Judgment.

In addition, we find a saying similar to the Synoptic version in the so-called “Q” material—in Matt 10:32-33 and Lk 12:8-9. Quite possibly, the Synoptic and “Q” versions each stem from a single historical tradition. The Q saying is more extensive and preserves a clearer sense of the Judgment scene:

“Every one who should give account as one [i.e. acknowledge/confess] on (behalf of) me in front of men, even (so) the Son of Man will give account as one on (behalf of) him in front of the Messengers of God. And the one refusing to speak (on behalf of) [i.e. who denies/disavows] me, he will not be given (any) speech (on his behalf) [i.e. will be denied/disavowed] in the sight of the Messengers of God” (Lk 12:8-9)

Here it is not a question of feeling shame, but of publicly affirming (or refusing to affirm) faith in Jesus. The would-be disciple’s behavior and attitude “in front of” other people will be reciprocated “in front of” the heavenly tribunal at the end-time.

Mark 13:26

This saying is part of the collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus which is set as taking place, in Jerusalem, in the days prior to his death. It is presented as a sermon (or discourse) given on a specific occasion, but it is more likely that the arrangement is traditional and thematic, based on the common eschatological theme(s). This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Matthew includes eschatological sayings (“Q” material) which occur in Luke at an entirely different location (17:20-37). The saying in Mk 13:26, occurs at a climactic (central) point in the “discourse”, covering verses 24-27. It is preceded by a quotation/adaptation of Scripture (Isa 13:10; 34:4) which vividly depicts the heavenly phenomena which will occur at the end-time (vv. 24-25). This marks the sudden appearance of the Son of Man:

“And then they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man, coming in (the) clouds with much power and splendor” (v. 26)

The expression “coming in/with the clouds (of heaven)” clearly derives from the ancient theophanous motif associated with “the one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13. The Judgment setting of vv. 24-27 is certain, though it must be inferred somewhat in this particular verse. It is the role of the Son of Man in the act of saving/redeeming the Elect people of God which is emphasized in v. 27:

“And then he will set forth the (heavenly) Messengers and they will bring together upon (one place) (all) his (people who are) gathered out [i.e. chosen] (from) out of the four winds, from the (furthest) tip of the earth until the (furthest) tip of heaven.”

Matthew (24:29-31) generally follows Mark, but adds/includes certain details in vv. 30-31:

  • A separate(?) Son of Man saying in v. 30a, which seems to allude to Zech 12:10 (cf. Jn 19:37; Rev 1:7); if so, it introduces the context of Jesus’ impending suffering which is absent from the tradition in Mk 13:24-27 par.
  • v. 30b fills out the expression “…clouds of heaven” (cf. Dan 7:13)
  • v. 31a adds the phrase “with a great trumpet”
  • in v. 31b, the spatial/geographic image for the gathering of the Elect is more straightforward than in Mk 13:27

The corresponding section in Luke (21:25-28) differs considerably, and may reflect an interpretive development of the Synoptic tradition. Note:

  • The detail of the Isaian passages cited in Mk 13:24-25 is summarized briefly in v. 25a & 26b
  • The reaction of humankind to the heavenly phenomena is included/inserted in vv. 25b-26a
  • In place of Mk 13:27 par, it would seem that Luke has included a separate saying of Jesus (v. 28), which more clearly brings out the idea of the coming redemption/deliverance of God’s people (i.e. believers)

The actual Son of Man saying in 21:27, however, follows the Synoptic/Markan version closely—another indication of its established/fixed position within the Tradition.

Mark 14:62

Even better established is the saying in Mark 14:62, which, if we accept as authentic and derived from Jesus’ actual words (on objective grounds), must have exerted a profound influence on every other eschatological reference to the Son of Man in the earliest Christian tradition. This is seen clearly enough from the way that the death of Stephen is narrated in the book of Acts, where the visionary scene in 7:55-56 obviously relates back to the Synoptic tradition of Mk 14:62 par. The setting of this saying—Jesus’ appearance before the Jerusalem Council (Sanhedrin)—will be discussed in the next part of this series, on the Passion Narrative. Here it is enough to look at the saying itself in its immediate context. It is presented as Jesus’ response to a question by the Council (the High Priest in Mark/Matthew):

“Are you the Anointed (One), the Son of the ‘Blessed’ (One)?” (Mk 14:61)

Matthew’s version of this question (26:63) has added Christological resonance, in the way that it closely echoes the confession of Peter in 16:16. Jesus’ initial response to this question differs significantly in all three Gospels, but the declaration involving the Son of Man is generally fixed in the tradition. Mark’s version (v. 62) is:

“you will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man, sitting out of the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven!”

The context makes clear that Jesus is identifying himself with the heavenly Son of Man figure (from Dan 7:13 etc); nowhere else in the Gospel tradition is this so readily apparent. However one may interpret the other eschatological Son of Man sayings, there is no mistaking the self-identification of Jesus here. It is also the clearest reference to the exaltation of Jesus, in the way that it blends the reference to Dan 7:13 together with Psalm 110:1. The image of the exalted Jesus in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, so prevalent in early Christian tradition (Mk 16:19; Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 1 Pet 3:22, etc), is prefigured here.

Again, it should be pointed out that, despite the numerous differences in how the Sanhedrin scene is narrated in the Synoptics, this particular Son of Man tradition is extremely well-established and fixed. Matthew and Luke (Matt 26:64; Lk 22:69) follow it closely, each including one small temporal phrase at the start—”from now (on)…”—which serves to contrast the current situation with that of the (future) end-time. Now Jesus is being judged under the power/authority of a human council, but from this point on (i.e. after his death and resurrection), the exalted Christ (the Son of Man) will be seated in the ultimate position of authority and judgment, at God’s right hand. We have seen how there is often a motif of reciprocity or reversal-of-fortune in the Son of Man sayings which deal with the Judgment—a person’s fate in the end-time Judgment will mirror his/her attitude and behavior on earth. Just as the Council is judging Jesus, so too will they be judged.

It is possible that Luke’s version of the saying is meant to objectify Jesus’ exaltation. Instead of “you will look with (open) eyes [i.e. see, gaze] at the Son of Man…”, the Lukan version reads simply “the Son of Man will be…”. It is no longer a question of something people will see, but of an objective reality which transcends one’s perception. People will see the Son of Man in glory at God’s right hand because that is where he will be after the resurrection.

The remainder of the Son of Man sayings in Matthew and Luke (from the “Q” material, etc) will be discussed in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – October 18 (1 Cor 13:12)

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1 Corinthians 13:12

Chapter 13 (12:31b-14:1a) in 1 Corinthians contains several occurrences of the verb ginw/skw (“know”) and the related noun gnw=si$ (“knowledge”), and is instructive for demonstrating a distinctly Christian orientation regarding knowledge which, especially as found in Paul’s letters to believers, serves to counteract certain gnostic (or Gnostic) tendencies. It follows upon the discussion in chapters 8-12, and serves as a fitting climax, with poetic and hymnic qualities, beauty and power, which have made it justly famous. Indeed, it is a veritable hymn to Love—that is, love according to the Christian ideal and teaching—which has as its basic theme the superiority of love over all spiritual gifts (including knowledge) and other Christian actions or virtues. Spiritual gifts are dealt with comprehensively in chapter 12, while knowledge is addressed in the discussion of chaps. 8-10 (on the question of food that had been consecrated in a pagan religious setting). Verses 1-3 of chapter 8 formulate the basic instruction which Paul restates in chapter 13:

“And about the (food)s slaughtered (as offering)s to images, we have seen [i.e. known] that ‘we all hold knowledge’. Knowledge blows up [i.e. inflates], but love builds up—if any(one) considers (himself) to have known any(thing), he does not (yet) know as it is necessary (for him) to know; but if any(one) loves God, this (person) is known under [i.e. by] Him.”

The priority (and superiority) of love is clearly stated, and is expressed, in practical terms, through the remainder of chaps. 8-10 and on into 11-12. The importance of love as a guiding principle for Christian thought and behavior takes on special significance in Paul’s letters in light of his teaching regarding the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). For believers in Christ, the Law no longer has the same binding authority it previously had for Israelites and Jews; in its place, Christians are now to be guided primarily by two different sources: (1) the presence of the Holy Spirit, and (2) the example (and teaching) of Jesus. It was Jesus himself who first formulated the so-called “love command” or love-principle (Mark 12:28-34 par; John 13:34-35, etc) and gave it prominence for the Christian community. Paul builds upon this in his letters—Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 5:6, 13-14; Phil 1:9; Col 2:2; 3:14; 1 Thess 3:12; 4:9; cf. also Eph 4:15-16; 5:2; 1 Tim 1:5; and is likewise found elsewhere throughout the New Testament and early Christian writings (e.g., James 2:8; 1 Pet 1:22; 4:8; 1 John 2:7-11, etc).

Before preceding to an examination of 1 Cor 13:12 itself, it will be helpful to view it within in the structure of 12:31b-14:1a:

  • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
    • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
      —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value

      • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
    • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
      —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
  • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

The references to knowledge are found in the two sections (13:1-3, 8-13) which describe the contrast between love and the other gifts. Indeed, there are two parallel points of contrast between love and knowledge (cf. 8:1-3):

  • 13:2—”if…I (can) see [i.e. know] all the secrets and (hold) all knowledge…but I do not hold love, (then) I am nothing”
  • 13:8b-9ff: “…and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working. For we know (only) out of a part…but when th(at which is) complete [te/leio$] comes, th(at which is only) out of a part will cease working…”

It is important to note that Paul does not refer here to profane or ‘ordinary’ human knowledge, nor to some kind of false or ‘pseudo’ knowledge. The context clearly indicates that he is referring to special knowledge granted to believers through the presence and work of the Spirit (i.e. as a spiritual gift). In both references knowledge (gw=nsi$) is connected closely with prophecy—that is, a message communicated to believers by God through the Spirit. Even this sort of special (prophetic) knowledge must be guided by love, and, eventually, will cease working. There is considerable interpretive debate as to just when, or in what circumstances, Paul envisions such knowledge to cease. Those who believe that the spiritual gifts experienced by the Pauline churches, along with the miracles performed by the apostles, etc., were a temporary phenomenon limited to the early Church, might claim that they have already ceased. However, this is not what Paul has in mind; almost certainly his thinking is eschatological—prophetic knowledge and revelation will cease with the end of the present Age. From the early Christian standpoint, the end of this Age is marked by the sudden return of Christ to earth and the final Judgment by God, along with the resurrection/transformation of believers (ch. 15) and their entry into eternal life. Along with this, however, Christians also held a “realized” eschatology—believers in the present, through the Spirit, experience something of the reality of what waits for us in the end. This mode of belief informs Christian (ethical) instruction—we are to live and act according to the ideals which will be realized fully in the Age to Come.

This brings us to verse 12, and the reference to knowledge in 12b, which follows two brief illustrations given by Paul that expound upon his declaration in vv. 8-10:

  • The growth and development of a human being (v. 11)—the adult ceases to think and act the way he/she did as a child; partly this takes place by conscious choice (“I ceased working [i.e. doing] the infant[ile] things”), which serves as a implicit exhortation to believers.
  • The mirror (v. 12a)—ancient mirrors were normally made of metal, tending to be not nearly so clear as modern day glass-mirrors; moreover, they required polishing, which again suggests the ethical/spiritual intent and ‘work’ required by believers.

The first illustration emphasizes the temporary nature of knowledge, that it passes away; the second emphasizes it limitation, i.e. it is only partial and incomplete. The limitation is intrinsic to the created, material human nature. Even the believer who possesses the Spirit cannot always see clearly, all the more when one is still under the influence of sin and the flesh. Only at the end, the completion (te/lo$) of things, will we be able to see things clearly. Here sight and knowledge are joined as metaphors, as they often are in the Greek of the New Testament; this is expressed neatly in verse 12:

“For now we look through a (glass one) gazes into [i.e. a mirror], in(to) (an) obscure (image), but then (clearly,) face toward face; now I know (only) out of a part, but then I will know (completely), even as I was known (completely).”

There is here a dual contrast between now (a&rti) and then (to/te):

  • Now
    —We look into an obscure (i.e. cloudy, unclear) mirror
    —I know only incompletely, in part
  • Then
    —We see clearly, as if seeing another person face-to-face
    —I know completely

The same expression e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”, i.e. partly, in part) to indicate the (human, natural) limitations for believers in the present Age, was used previously in vv. 9-10. The main difference in verse 12, in my view, is that Paul has moved from the work of the Spirit (the spiritual ‘gifts’), to the presence of the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that one is able to see and know God, but in the present time our experience of the Spirit, is, due to our very nature, necessarily imperfectly realized and often mysterious. Note how, in the language Paul uses, the verse itself seems to gain greater clarity: “we look…I know”. Even more striking is the symmetry of what is to come (note the alliteration):

pro/swpon pro\$ pro/swpon
prosœpon pros prosœpon
“face toward face”
lit. “toward-the-eye toward toward-the-eye”
i.e., “eye to eye”

In terms of the mirror illustration, we would be seeing our own face clearly; but Paul’s application assumes something deeper—it is God’s face we see, our own ‘face’ being transformed into His likeness (that of Christ), as he expresses memorably in 2 Cor 3:18. And so we come to the beautiful and simple symmetry of language that closes the verse:

e)pignw/somai kaqw\$ kai/ e)pegnw/sqhn
epignœsomai kathœs kai epegnœsth¢n
“I will know even as I was (also) known”

Again the phrase is highly alliterative, with symmetry marked at two levels:

  • I will know (e)pignw/somai)
    —even as (kaqw$)
    —also/indeed (kai)
  • I was known (e)pegnw/sqhn)

Two forms of the same verb separated by two particles in tandem, create a comparative join. The sense of “knowledge” here has changed slightly—instead of knowledge as a prophetic/revelatory gift from God (through the Spirit), it now refers more directly to knowledge of God Himself. It is a different verb as well; instead of ginw/skw (“know”) it is the compound verb e)piginw/skw (with the prefixed preposition/particle e)pi). This verb generally refers to gaining knowledge about something (or someone), but often carries the nuance of recognition, acknowledgement, understanding. It can also have an intensive meaning, i.e. to know something (or someone) thoroughly, completely, intimately, etc.; and this latter sense is in view here—”I will know (completely)”. The passive form (“I was [completely] known”) should be read as a so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied subject. Believers as “known” by God assumes the basic idea of election—of our being chosen beforehand, according to the will and consideration of God. This will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming article. It is possible, though not certain (or even necessary), that the aorist form of the verb used here specifically indicates election or predestination—i.e., as action which took place at a specific time in the past (before our coming to faith). At any rate, we have here in 13:12b, two fundamental aspects of knowledge in the New Testament—believers’ knowledge of God and His knowledge of us. This dual aspect will be explored further in the remaining article of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”.