What's so Apocalyptic about the Gospel?
There's more than one way to see the Good News.
Ever heard of an exophytic complex cyst adjacent to the splenic dome? Unless you're a medical professional or good at Googling, the question sounds like gibberish. Medical training shapes the way a person thinks about the body, down to the smallest detail of our anatomy, and to a urologist, it's crystal clear what that cyst is. Where we see fuzzy shadowy shapes on an kidney X-ray, a trained technician sees a tremendous amount of detailed information. In a similar way, interpreting the writings of the New Testament requires a reorientation of our thought processes, especially when we encounter the radical differences between our assumptions about how the world works, and that of early Jewish-Christian believers.
The Apostle Paul did not think the same way about the world as we do. Neglect the fact that Paul was a Hellenized Jew of the first century and you are well on your way to misunderstanding most of what he wrote. When we use our own cultural framework to guess at what Paul meant when he wrote in 1 Corinthians, "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." We are left with some difficult interpretive choices:
Paul and his patriarchal culture were wrong- this particular more no longer applies
Because Paul seems to contradict this statement in other passages, they cancel out and support a less divinely-inspired Bible
Paul sounds wrong here, but since this is God's word, there must by some kind of cryptic universal principle we need to understand
Paul is right (partly because of presuppositions about the Bible in general) and we should adopt a policy of restricting the roles of women in the church
Some later redactor inserted this statement into the text for their own reasons
Plenty of modern Christian traditions have chosen choice number four because of a hermeneutic that places the Bible on a lofty pedestal supported by the three pillars of inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility. All three combine to place the scriptures in a status that is untouchable by any interpretation beyond its plain sense in English. The logic of this view can be expressed this way: reading the Bible is equivalent to reading a precise, transcultural, transtemporal description of what God expects of us in plain English. Our job is to understand the Bible's plain sense and obey it.
The problems with this approach start to accumulate when historians, linguists, archaeologists, social scientists and others publish their observations. Or when regular readers start asking legitimate questions about inconsistencies, anachronisms and outright contradictions in their English Bibles. If we accept the fact that the New Testament both agrees and with and subverts Roman household codes and other caste structures in the ancient world, we must wonder which "truth" is God's singular truth. There are some passages that advocate radical egalitarianism in light of the imminent apocalypse and others that favor maintaining a stratified and (to us) misogynistic social status quo. Compare Galatians 3:28 with Paul's many other statements about gender and marriage. And how was the first century believer to maintain peace with the empire while also turning from idols when emperor worship was expected (See Romans 13 and 2 Cor. 6)?
The same is true for the gospels that were roughly contemporary with Paul's writings. In the absence of information about the unwritten assumptions of the originating culture, we are left to interpret the texts with a severe handicap. Anyone who has traveled to other lands knows that without a native guide instructing you on the "things everyone knows" in that place, your blunders can be at best embarrassing and at worst, dangerous.
Going beyond a simple "face value hermeneutic" opens a veritable floodgate of information that unlocks many of the interpretive riddles facing readers of the NT. It's hard to know where to start when faced with the mountains of work done by scholars at all levels of detail from overarching narrative insights to finely detailed observations about social customs.
One such insight is an old one but for many reasons, political and otherwise, it has been neglected or marginalized by western evangelicalism and other mainstream theological camps. It's the simple idea that the New Testament documents, composed mostly by ethnic Jews, contains a high degree of continuity with the ancient prophetic traditions regarding the Day of the Lord, the Apocalypse, the culmination of history on a day when YHWH descends from the skies to finally reverse the brokenness of our world and brings about a return to Edenic harmony. Following a pattern of suffering before glory, God will set up his command center in Jerusalem, ruling the cosmos along with his chosen people, the Jews.
The continuity appears in the frequent references to the Day of the Lord as a background reality, and related thematic commitments that shape Paul's motivations and writings. The imminent arrival of the apocalypse appears everywhere once you look for it, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the gospels to the many later pseudepigraphal texts. Second Peter 3 (probably written in the second century CE) contains one of the most intriguing references to the Parousia in terms of its delay, "Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, 'Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.'”
Reading the gospels to understand Jesus means considering how he is depicted in relationship to the end of the age and the age to come. How do the authors build a case in favor of their position on Jesus' identity as Messiah? What questions are they answering in order to persuade their audience? How do their claims agree with Paul's and how do they differ? When we ask, "So what?" of the text, does an apocalyptic outlook give reasonable, sensible answers? Are they better answers than the standard modern evangelical ones? An effective hermeneutical key should simplify and harmonize various texts, and when reading with the key in mind, various texts suddenly make sense both internally and in continuity with others.
Before we test our theory that an Apocalyptic reading of the New Testament is an effective hermeneutical key, let's establish some additional historical and cultural background.
In general, the eastern Mediterranean world of Paul's day was unstable, rife with cultural clashes old and new, and in many localities it felt like the safe, predictable old ways of living were being overwhelmed by powerful forces well beyond one's control. The many argumentative sects of Judaism either welcomed Hellenization and Romanization or despised one, the other or both. Recent past events had seen Judea and Jerusalem both liberated and conquered by a succession of political entities. Ancestral lands were squeezed by increased taxation, followed by some relief, only to be overrun by Persians, Seleucid Greeks, Ptolemaic Greeks, Romans, and that foreign pretender Herod of Idumea and his corrupt, pro-Roman family.
As families and whole villages were disrupted and sometimes forcibly removed from their homelands, and as migration in general increased throughout the empire, and wealthy patrons or governmental agents bought up land from small holders, there arose a demand for the kinds of close knit small communities that had been left behind. In foreign lands, especially in urban settings, new communities often formed around popular mystery cults that offered both social bonds and an opportunity to stabilize daily life through the personal worship of a deity. The cults of Serapis and Cybele are examples of popular and widespread religious organizations that eventually built local temples in many corners of the ancient world.
In Jewish Palestine, many ancient traditions were still intact and many looked back to their prophets for hope and guidance. The apocalyptic words of Daniel, Zechariah and Joel were discussed and interpreted as many in leadership saw certain signs that the predicted Day of the Lord, the Last Day was near at hand. Daniel 9:27 spoke of an abomination set up in the Jerusalem temple, and when Hellenistic King Antiochus Epiphanes (the post-Alexander Seleucid ruler of Syria) sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple of Yahweh, many were sure that God's wrath was surely right around the corner.
Add up ancient prophecies, current political realities, a population anxious to preserve their identity, a worldview that was comfortable with the idea of frequent interaction between gods and humans, zealous individuals who saw themselves as possible saviors of their people, Roman intolerance and Temple infighting and you get a season ripe for apocalyptic imaginings.
It was no wonder there was an increase in speculation about the appearance of Messianic personalities around the time of Jesus and John the Baptizer's emergence. Only a hundred years before, in a struggle against those in power over the Jerusalem Temple, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls were exiled to the desert to await a "Teacher of Righteousness" who would call the Jews back to the "correct" religious calendar and the proper methodology of sacred worship. Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian recounts more than a dozen supposedly anointed figures, as Dr. James Tabor describes in his Blog:
"Josephus mentions a dozen or more 'messiah' figures beginning with Hezekiah/Ezekias c. 45 BCE whom the young Herod defeated whom he variously labels as “brigands” (ληστής) or “imposters” (γόης)—though he calls Judas the Galilean a “wise man” (σοφιστής) and credits him with the founding a the “fourth philosophy” (Jewish Antiquities 18.23). Several of these figures are said to have worn the “diadem” (διάδημα)—which indicates royal or “messianic” claims and aspirations. Philo defines γόης as one who cloaks himself as a prophet but is an imposter (Special Laws 1.315), compare 2 Timothy 3:13. The following list could be expanded but it includes those who are most obviously named and identified. This does not include, of course, the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran, John the Baptizer, Jesus, or James his brother, who represented scions of the tribes of Levi and Judah or both. And then we could add Barabbas, mentioned in Mark 15:7, and the two crucified “brigands,” (ληστής), one on the right and the other on the left of Jesus (Mark 15:27):
Hezekiah/Ezekias, defeated by Herod in 47 BCE (Jewish War 1.204-205)
Judas (aka Theudas) son of Ezekias, 4 BCE/death of Herod (Jewish War 2.56; Acts 5:36)
Simon of Perea, 4 BCE/death of Herod (Jewish War 2.57-59)
Athronges the Shepherd, 4 BCE/death of Herod (Jewish War 2:60-65)
Judas the Galilean, 6 CE/Archaelaus removed (Jewish War 2.118
Another Theudas, c. 44 CE (Jewish Antiquities 20.97; Acts 5:36?)
James and Simon, c. 46 CE, sons of Judas the Galilean, crucified by Tiberius Alexander, nephew of Philo, who was Procurator 46-48 CE (Jewish Antiquities 20.102)
“The Egyptian” c. 50s CE (Jewish Antiquities 20.169-171; Jewish War 2.261-263; Acts 21:38)
Eleazar son of Dineus/Deinaeus, c. 52 CE under Felix (Jewish War 2.253; Jewish Antiquities 20:161)
Menachem, son of Judas the Galilean, 66 CE (Jewish War 2:433-448)
Eleazar son of Jairus (ben Yair), commander of Masada, was of the family (γένος) of Menachem (Jewish War 2.447)"*
The prophetic tradition from the Hebrew Bible contains volumes of material on the Day of the Lord- the final judgement and coming of Yahweh to establish his kingdom and material related to a messiah that would appear in the context of the end of the present age. The book of Daniel in particular contains specific numbers of "sevens" that were interpreted to mean weeks of years. In the decades just before the time of Jesus, those familiar with Daniel 9 calculated that the present age was about to end: "Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place."**
In the Hebrew scriptures from Genesis to Malachi a singular theme permeates the narratives, poems, songs, proverbs and recorded prophetic oracles: that there is coming a final day marking the end of the present age and the beginning of the age to come. In their darkest moments, the prophets offer an ironclad hope for a future when evil and injustice will be reversed and God's people will come out on top. This motif is carried through in the gospels, Paul and other first century writers as a foundational element of their agenda for the post-Jesus years. Caesar is not the savior bringing good news of peace on earth. His rival Jesus is the One who signals the end of the age and provides a way to escape the wrath of God that is right around the corner.
The momentous fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE marked a clear "before" and "after" boundary for the Jews in Palestine, the early Jewish-Christian church and the entire Jewish diaspora- but unfortunately did not bring about the Age to Come. The cataclysmic and tragic event was interpreted by more than a few that the Apocalypse had indeed occurred- a hypothesis that is still popular among modern preterists (preterism refers to those convinced that most or all of the prophecies about the end of days were fulfilled in the events of 63-70 CE, and that the kingdom of God is now in effect and expanding in the world). This mixture of Jewish-Roman-Hellenistic cognitive landscape provides the setting for the New Testament and Pseudepigraphal texts that have come down to us in the modern day.
Paul's beliefs shows this blend of Judaism and Hellenism. In his writings, one finds elements of both worldviews in a fascinating mixture of propositions about "the gospel" and his drive to include Gentiles in the apocalyptic vision central to a Jewish conception of the end of history. The earliest Christ-followers saw the world in mostly Jewish terms. They lived by the Torah. They visited the Temple. They followed their traditions and festivals as best they could, including circumcision. It was bit more difficult in the diaspora in far-flung regions of the Mediterranean world, but as best they could they kept their identity as Jews with a connection with the land, God's promise of redemption and future restoration. Paul the Pharisee represents the views of a Hellenized Jew who processed the events of Jesus' life and death as a particularly exciting chapter of an old, old story. The appearance of Jesus the Anointed One is evidence that the prophets were right all along and that the Parousia, the day when Yahweh appears to usher in "the age to come" is very close.
A modern Christian reading of the gospels emphasizes Jesus as a remedy for personal sin; believing in him gives you the privilege of walking in a personal relationship with God in this life, leading to all manner of benefit now and in the future. Upon death, you are transported to a non-physical space (maybe another dimension?) of eternal bliss. This reality is part of a "new covenant" which supersedes the old one now that a new high priest (Jesus) is in office. With some notable exceptions, American Christianity's missionary fervor isn't fueled by the coming apocalypse, rather, it's motivated by the idea that each human being is lost and dying and in need of confrontation with a personal message before their physical death. The study of Revelation and other apocalyptic material is as much about satisfying our curiosity about the future or preparing for the worst.
Contrast this with the ancient Judaic hope for "God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven." Theirs was a thoroughly unitary conception of the cosmos with no place for a realm of platonic ideals or other dimensions. God, from his rightful place (the third or highest heaven) will "open the heavens and come down." This is to be a real event, experienced by humankind in our current state, in which a final world government would rule the planet, headed by God and administered by the children of Abraham. Perhaps the most important part of the big event is that God's wrath will be justly and finally enacted against evildoers and unbelievers at all levels of existence. Without forgiveness and access to God's mercy, your final destination is Gehenna, the symbolic place of eternal torment.
Examples of these ideas in the "Bible" Jesus would have heard:
Isaiah 4: " In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem. The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire."
Joel 2: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days… The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
Zephaniah 2: "Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.
Zechariah 14: "On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south… On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness. It will be a unique day- a day known only to the Lord- with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light… Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles."
These predictions are firmly in Paul's mind as he pushes himself and his entourage to establish missionary communities of both Jews and Gentiles throughout the known world- there is coming a literal day in which the God of Israel will appear on earth, and unless a person has responded in faith toward God's Anointed One, Jesus, terrible wrath lies ahead. And he's insistent that it will happen in his lifetime, as Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew 24: "…this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
Neither "Hellenism" and "Judaism" are easy to pin down nor are the boundaries between the two. In all likelihood, they influenced each other. Still, we can trace some Greek influence in Paul's belief system, such as hints of an affinity with the Stoics, an undeniable dualism between physical and non-physical realities, the role of reason in accessing the divine (Rom. 1:19-20). Other examples of Hellenisms related to the onset of the apocalypse are:
Paul's reference to new super-bodies after the resurrection: "[our present material body] is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." "If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body," And "…just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man." 1 Corinthians 15. This idea is not found in the Jewish prophetic-apocalyptic traditions
His use of a Stoic concept of a naturally implanted unwritten law that drives moral action in Romans 2:15
Catalogs of vices in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians (vices and virtues) were another common Stoic convention
Both Epictetus and Philo use the metaphor of milk versus solid food in discussing the maturity of the soul as Paul does in 1 Cor. 3
Hellenistic mystery cults employed catechetical themes that are familiar to us because Paul used them to define aspects of faith in Christ: Spirit vs. flesh, death, burial and resurrection in mystical union with Christ.
Ancient stories of mystical union with a dying and rising god like Osiris / Serapis, Adonis, Attis and others most likely inform Paul's language describing similar themes applying to Christ and those who believe in him, for example in Romans 6: "Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." This was familiar descriptive terminology in Greek-based Mediterranean cultures***
Fast forward to modern times. An approach called Realized Eschatology (RE) is one way to ascertain what Paul is getting at when he talks about the dynamics of being "in Christ." RE places a preterist emphasis on the life and teachings of Jesus and how the kingdom of God is real and present now in the life of a believer. Most end-times prophecies have been fulfilled, and the purpose of the gospel message is to bring about participation in a better life here and now that continues on into eternal life in heaven later. RE results in emphases on the sanctification of believers, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the church and a rebirth of creation at the end of the age instead of a last judgement.
An attempt to blend both an apocalyptic (the kingdom of God is still to come) and a realized eschatology (the kingdom of God is among you) approach is called Inaugurated Eschatology (IE). It emphasizes the idea that the Kingdom of God was inaugurated at the resurrection, but not completely fulfilled. This is the view that most western evangelicals use as an interpretive framework for the New Testament. Inaugurated eschatology assumes that some of the elements of the Age to Come are present now, but there's still quite a bit that will change when Jesus returns.
Here's a summary of how most protestant evangelical churches express their IE position in their statements of faith or core beliefs:
Jesus- As human and God simultaneously, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to suffer in our place in order to satisfy the justified wrath of God toward rebellious unbelievers. What we deserve, he took on. This substitution makes it possible to experience a relationship with God, beginning when a person believes correctly in Jesus as Savior and dedicates their life to following his lead. Jesus presently plays his role as high priest on our behalf, while his kingship, partly realized in the life of the believer, is mainly still to come. Jesus is the Messiah in a spiritual way; his first coming was never intended to bring about a realized political kingdom established on earth in real time. The plan was always to come a second time to wrap up history and judge between believers and unbelievers.
Humankind- Born in a spiritually dead state (in sin), we find ourselves in need of God's help to escape the effects of original sin, chiefly, a broken individual relationship with God. As such we are under divine judgement and must depend on God's generous offer of salvation to escape eternity in hell. Earthly life is an extended opportunity to repent and believe the propositions of the gospel.
Salvation- Occurs when you believe, repent of your sins and are baptized. The person of the Holy Spirit indwells you (there's much debate on the details of this phenomenon), which enables the believer to perform good works and opens up channels of fellowship with the church. The result of a profession of faith is the enjoyment of a better life in line with God's original design and admittance for the believer to a higher plane of existence in heaven immediately after death.
Evangelicals tend to center history on what God is doing in the present: Jesus' substitutionary atonement opens the door for lost sinners to be forgiven and granted a spiritual ability to live better lives. We "get saved" in order to experience a relationship with Jesus and fulfill a responsibility to attract others to the same program. With Jesus as our model of fearless love, we gather in communities to celebrate the presence of God's kingdom now in our everyday lives. We talk about the Holy Spirit as an active agent in building the kingdom of God here and now. The timing of the Last Days or End Times is ultimately a mystery, as Jesus admitted in Matthew 24, although a few Christian traditions have made eschatology a major emphasis in their belief system and continue find biblical significance in current world events. Other traditions are of the mind that the church can hasten the end times or bypass it altogether by linking God's kingdom to human political institutions (see Augustine's City of God).
Consider this: Paul and the gospel writers didn't see things as just described. For them, the center of history is not necessarily the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (although vitally important), but rather a future Day that separates this age from the one to come. The advent of Jesus the Messiah was absolutely tied to the fulfillment of Jewish Apocalyptic hope, much less so that each of us could call him a personal savior. Tie your fortunes to Jesus the Messiah, they urged, and through suffering and baptism you will escape the wrath to come. For Paul and the authors of Matthew and Mark (less so for Luke and John, written later), the Parousia was imminent- certainly in their lifetime. And Paul figured out that the Jewish apocalyptic tradition made room for the "seventy nations" (Genesis 10) that existed outside the parameters of Judaism. His assignment was to act on behalf of prophecies like this in Isaiah 2: "In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.'"
For comparison, a summary of an "Apocalyptic Gospel" is as follows:
From the moment the first humans transgressed the "law" of God in the garden, a plan to bring all of history to a final climactic conclusion that corrects or reverses everything that has gone wrong with creation. In the meantime, God repeatedly warns humankind through prophets and prophecy, limited episodes of judgement against rebellion and demonstrations of his care for the world. The Flood, the Exodus, the era of the Judges, the destruction of Israel and Judah and the first temple are all examples of God's pursuit of this agenda.
God chose to bless all the families of the earth through one family: Abraham and his descendants. It all works if the Abrahamic descendants remember and live by the special covenant relationship, especially as expressed in the Torah. A specific promise to place a descendant of David on the throne in the Age to Come gives rise to later messianic expectations.
Sin is defined as Jewish failure to keep up their end of the bargain outlined in God's covenant promises to Abraham, Moses and David. Jews have been guilty of breaking these covenants, failing in their purpose of modeling God's ways to gentiles. Idolatry is the most significant expression of covenant-breaking. The Assyrian invasion of Israel and the eventual destruction of the first temple by Babylon was not the final Apocalypse, but a harsh response to a pattern of ignoring prophetic warnings about Israel and Judah's failure to maintain Gods' prescribed ceremonial and ethical behavior as a light to the nations. When it became apparent that the 70 CE destruction of the Temple was not in fact part of the final Day of the Lord, it was seen as yet another warning that time was short and repentance was the proper response, expressed by turning from idols (the Greco-Roman pantheon) and toward Jewish style monotheism.
Promises of a Davidic Messiah are found throughout the Hebrew Bible- a Priest and King from the line of David. There is some evidence of an expectation of two Messiahs- one a priest and one a king- so it was no coincidence that there was an early belief that John the Baptizer and his cousin Jesus fit this dual Messiah picture perfectly. It was strongly believed that the Messiah could also be the "Son of Man" figure from Daniel and it was he that would at the very least pry the Jewish state free from Roman domination, and at most establish God's heavenly kingdom on earth to rule the cosmos from an actual administration set up in Jerusalem.
Jewish apocalyptic hope involves the actual, visible fulfillment of all the events foretold in the Jewish prophetic tradition. The "Son of Man" touches down on the Mount of Olives next to Jerusalem and sets up a world government based on Judaic law and practice. Nations will be judged by their deeds and the Age to Come will commence as every knee bows to the ultimate authority of Yahweh in his Holy City. Wrath will break out against evildoers. Rewards are given to the faithful, righteous ones who are either Jews in good standing or gentiles who achieve the rank of "God-fearer" or convert.
The Centered Set model for Paul and the early Christians had the "Day of Wrath" at the center. In the prophetic tradition, this future day would see Israel placed above all the nations of the earth, ruling even over angels who do God's bidding. Wrongs are righted and evil punished. Before the Messiah appeared, escaping God's judgement was a matter of following Torah until, in Pauline thinking, Jesus the Anointed One provided a faith-based pathway for all people groups. Jesus confirmed the reality of the Jewish worldview by living as the perfect Israelite, offering himself as the suffering Passover lamb in death, and resurrected to life as the firstborn of many. Turn to God from idols and you will certainly take on the Pauline "spiritual body," both the living and righteous dead who will be resurrected to life on the Last Day.
As the events of the early first century shrank in the rearview mirror and the decades rolled on, it became obvious that the Parousia might be delayed. As believers waited, they needed some direction on how to manage their present and future lives. In his early works like 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul advises his audience against marriage and other changes in social status because the end of all things was right around the corner. In his own words to the believers in Corinth: "What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away."
By 80 CE the Jerusalem Temple has lain in rubble for ten years and an emerging Messianic Jewish faction is struggling to establish an identity. The Gospel of Mark fits the bill as an early attempt to define some normative Jewish practice post-Temple as expressed by that remarkable Rabbi Jesus. Paul's early writings are just beginning to circulate and the big questions needing answers revolved around the dynamics of escaping the delayed Day of Wrath.
Repenting gentiles seem to be included in the outpouring of the Spirit predicted by Joel in the last days. What does that mean?
Were Gentiles in fact included in the protection offered by the Passover blood of the righteous Jesus?
Did they have to become Jews to qualify for protection?
If so, what did that look like? Circumcision? Obedience to the theoretical Noachide ethic that preceded Moses? Something else?
What did it mean to "turn from idols" and pledge oneself to the worship of the Jewish God?
How does one differentiate between those who are in or out (and spreading false teaching)?
How do we respond to political or social pressures?
Was martyrdom preferable to languishing in the present world?
What was the reason for the delayed Parousia?
At the death of Jesus his followers found their expectations dashed. Many were absolutely certain that at long last the predicted final reversal in which the Roman empire and every other nation would bow the knee to Yahweh was upon them. Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem showed that great numbers of Jews were hoping for a leader that would establish Jewish political autonomy, or even better, a universal government that ruled the entire cosmos! Would this also extinguish their ancient heritage of tenacious faith in Yahweh, faith that had survived so much tragedy and even exile from the promised land? What was the way through this latest setback? The answers early believers framed can be read in the first century documents we have, starting with Paul and including various pseudepigraphal works.
Paul and others noticed that in the old prophetic language there was a definite theme of "suffering before glory." There was also a strong element of resurrection embedded in the scriptures, as Martha of Bethany reminds Jesus in John 11, "I know he (recently deceased Lazarus) will rise again on the last day." Could Jesus himself have been resurrected as a forerunner, the first of many to be brought through the Wrath of God on the last day? Has God now provided a ransom for those who believe, including the Gentiles? Messianic hopes pinned on Jesus grew in importance and scope as the narrative was adjusted to conform to Jewish apocalyptic hopes. God's predicted Anointed One had shown up, suffered, died, was buried but was now raised to the highest place of honor in the Age to Come, giving more Gentiles and Jews time to turn from idols and slavery to the Law before he comes again for the final time.
For Paul, living by the Torah has much to commend it, but he recognized a new and living way, a way of faith that provides cover for anyone who wishes to escape the wrath to come. "Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.' So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith" (Gal. 3). Both Jews and Gentiles must avail themselves of this faith if they want to see the kingdom of God. Paul and others also knew that time was very short. God has delayed the second half of the Last Day, namely when he unleashes his wrath against the unrighteous, for a brief moment until, as he puts it in Romans 11, "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved."
To summarize the basic elements of Paul's apocalyptic gospel, let's compare it in chart form with modern conceptions of what constitutes the good news of Christ's coming. Inaugurated and Realized Eschatology eventually found favor over Jewish Eschatology mainly because they better fit a reality in which the Parousia had lost its imminence. As centuries passed, Christians naturally focused on grounding their beliefs on everyday, long term existence- a very different proposition from the urgency of the early days of the movement.
Two simultaneous realities, not contiguous
Heaven: Immaterial, eternal unobservable platonic realm, where the Trinitarian God and other lesser powers live. Upon physical death, believing individuals immediately arrive here to begin eternal life in paradise. A parallel eternal realm of retributive torment called Hell is opened for both condemned human souls and evil beings like rebellious angels.
Earth: Physical reality consisting of our planet and the observable universe. Morally neutral. Humans living in physical reality are fallen, broken and susceptible to evil. Satan also lives here to oppose God's work.
Single contiguous reality in three zones
The "heavens" (Paul visited a "third heaven") where Gods and powers live in the "air" or the skies. Beings and powers can move freely between the heavens and Earth. Occasionally, a human being can be taken up the heavens (Enoch, Elijah, Paul), or is privileged to experience a visionary peek into God's realm (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel).
Earth- Created perfect (declared "good" by God) but corrupted by evil. All creation is affected by a curse levied by God as a consequence of our rejection of His authority. Physical reality will be renewed and eternalized at the apocalypse.
Under the earth- Sheol / Hades- a temporary resting place for the dead until resurrection on the Last Day.
Creation to Christ / Christ / Last Days / Apocalypse
Begins perfect in the "temple" of the Garden
Divided in four parts: All of history before Jesus / life, death and resurrection of Jesus / the Christian age of the Great Commission / Judgement Day that inaugurates a new heaven and earth.
In the first division of history, Jews and Gentiles depended on faith in Jewish law for salvation. The nations were generally evil and condemned by God, however there was limited provision for non-Jews to participate. Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations, an attractive example of righteousness from whom other nations can learn. Because of sin, this was ultimately inadequate and God had already planned to send his Son as a final sin offering once for all.
The Christ event provided humankind with a model for what living out God's righteousness looks like, including martyrdom. The resurrection sealed a real transaction whereby Jesus voluntarily assumed our sin, was condemned in our place and resurrected as confirmation that forgiveness is now available to sinners.
After Christ, the church takes up the responsibility to call the nations to faith in the transactional sacrifice of the perfect God-Man to reconcile individuals to an angry God, who holds us individually accountable for our sin.
At present- the Parousia is probably not imminent, but is partially here already. the Kingdom of God is breaking in. Many prophecies have been fulfilled and God is waiting mercifully until the full number of Gentiles has come in.
Future: Final Day of the Lord / judgement- Evil is abolished. Evil powers and evil humans are cast into Hell. Former creation passes away and God's authority takes over, never to be challenged again.
Present Age / Apocalypse / The Age to Come
Begins perfect in the "temple" of the Garden
Divided in two parts: the present Age and the Age to come, separated by the Day of the Lord.
Current Age is characterized by God's promise to bless all families through Abraham, but the Abrahamic people (Jews) continue to disobey God, bringing about a series of limited judgements to correct the chosen people (oppression by other nations, exile, loss of temple, etc.)
Present-The Parousia has not happened, but is imminent. The gifts of the Spirit are confirmations and guarantees of the Age to Come and vindications of the promises.
The Messiah has appeared in the present age in a way that is similar to other historical events when God acts on behalf of his chosen people (e.g., the Exodus), as a vindication of God's promises and assurance of future apocalyptic action. Suffering and death shows the pattern for how God will enact the final stage of history. His coming provides a faith-based way for Jews and Gentiles to escape the wrath to come.
Future: YHWH comes to renew the Earth, judge the wicked, and rule for eternity from a new Jerusalem. The Messiah (Son of Man) appears from heaven to usher in the Age to Come, vindicating all of God's promises throughout the first age. Nations are judged and God establishes direct rule over the cosmos from Jerusalem.
Christ: The Death and resurrection of Jesus supersedes any former requirements of Jewish belief and practice. A new covenant is in place rendering the Temple and Torah obsolete.
Faith in Jesus produces forgiveness for every human, whether Jew or Gentile. Christ is now establishing his kingdom in the church and some suppose through governmental power (Augustine, Triumphalism).
For westerners, Christ is portrayed as a penal substitution or propitiation to satisfy God's righteous wrath against sin. Good works are an evidentiary response to this forgiveness. The Holy Spirit is the agent of these good works, supplying the necessary power to overcome evil, both personal and corporate.
Jesus is the Anointed One who provides a faith-based access to righteousness for Gentiles in addition to existing Torah / birthright-based access for Jews. Faith is essential for both Jew and Gentile to be forgiven and reconciled to God (see Galatians 3 where Paul discusses the Abrahamic promise).
Jews inherit eternal life as Torah-observant Jews, Gentiles as those who show repentance through obedience to Noahide laws and rejection of idol worship (Acts 15). All who align themselves with a Jewish messianic belief system initiated by Jesus the Messiah will escape the wrath to come.
In the meantime, good works are expected as described in traditional ethics as an expression of one's allegiance to the God of Israel
The Church / Kingdom
The Gentile church is now the "True Israel" that inherits the promises and ministry of reconciliation of the nations to God. The Church replaces the descendants of Abraham as his chosen instrument of reconciliation due to their hardness of heart.
The kingdom is spiritual, interior, individual and expressed in the world through the Body of Christ, the Church. Jesus is now reigning from heaven, eventually to consummate his role as king in the end times by appearing to rescue all believers, living and dead and founding His kingdom on earth.
Repentance should be accompanied by changed behavior to more closely align with a biblical ethic of love.
The Holy Spirit is an empowering force to build and protect the growing kingdom of God on earth
Purpose is to proclaim 1) That judgement by Jesus is coming on the Day of the Lord and 2) The means of forgiveness is faith in Jesus.
The church is an agent of repentance and formation into the ongoing covenantal relationship with God confirmed by the charismatic gifts of the Spirit in the community.
The Holy Spirit is given as a glimpse of the powers of the Age to Come, a down payment on the entire reversal yet to come.
Focus is on continuity between past prophetic messaging to the present period of proclamation and a final day of judgement. Emphasis on helping people avoid the wrath to come.
Motif of martyrdom (dying to self) characterizes attitudes of faithful.
A complex series of future events characterized by a cascading judgements of evil, Satan, demons and unbelievers. Believers who have died are already in a spiritual reality to be joined by those still alive at the second coming of the Messiah. New heaven and Earth eventually emerge after cataclysmic events in nature and human politics. It's unclear if a platonic reality will prevail as future reality or if God will destroy then re-create a new heavens and earth.
A single event, predicted and described in Jewish prophetic literature featuring God's wrath against unbelievers. Believers are justified (declared not guilty) and welcomed into an eternal hierarchical monarchy topped by Yahweh, with Jesus the Messiah and faithful Jews in a role as "executor" of God's authority, bringing about cosmic renewal. See Jesus' remark about His disciples ruling from 12 thrones in Matthew 19. Believing Gentiles participate in the "reset" back to Eden.
Jesus the Messiah defeats all powers including death itself (1 Cor. 11) and initiates an ideal cosmos (see Isaiah 11).
Reading the New Testament in a roughly earliest-to-latest order can help uncover a distinct apocalyptic framework underlying the themes and motifs in scripture that we have divorced from the urgency Paul and others felt as they sensed the end drawing near. The careful reader can also detect Christological developments as reflection and theologizing evolved over time.
Here's list of NT books and major events in a chronological order that reflects the latest scholarship. Not all agree, but this timeline follows a reasonably supportable consensus:
***Paul and Hellenism https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/479456
See also the Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast
and their list of resources for further reading