2 Peter and the Return of Jesus

The implied opponents in 2 Peter denied the return of Jesus (1:16, 2:1-3, 14, 18). There are several reasons for this, but primarily it was because the first generation of believers were old or dead. Peter himself is about to die, Paul will die about the same time. Yet Jesus has not returned – why is this?

It is possible that the opponents charged the older generation with creating the return of Jesus, it is a “cleverly devised myth (1:16). Bauckham suggests that the opponents might have claimed the apostles made up the return of Jesus in order to control the early church (Jude, 2 Peter, 154).” I am not sure how that would work, it almost sounds like the first generation knew they were creating a cult and they came up with a story and brainwashed their converts.

I think that it is more like that the phrase “cleverly devised myth” implies that they opponents claimed that the (Jewish) apostles over-interpreted the words of Jesus because of there apocalyptic world view. As the church became increasingly Gentile, it became more rational. The second and third generation Gentile believers were not reading Daniel and 1 Enoch, they were reading Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. As a result the “apocalyptic” aspect of early Christianity was muted. These false-teachers deny the return of Jesus because they do not share the apocalyptic assumptions of Paul and Peter!  (This suggestion has the advantage of explaining the missing text from Jude, especially the citation of 1 Enoch which concerns the apocalyptic return of the Lord. Peter avoided them since they would cause more trouble from his opponents.)

The opponents also denied a future judgment as well as the return of Jesus. The coming of Messiah is bound up with the idea of a judgment on the nations in Jewish apocalyptic. When Messiah comes, he will judge the nations and punish those who are not considered “righteous.” In Matt 25: 31-46, for example, when Jesus returns he will punish the nations that mistreated his children. If the Messiah is not coming back, then he is also not going to judge people for their present behavior (2:19).

Peter’s strategy for countering his opponents is interesting especially since we now live some 2000 years after Jesus.  It is fairly easy to mock the  idea of a “return of Jesus” given that he has been away for quite some time, and some of his followers keep failing at predictions of the day and hour.   Rather than point to so-called fulfilled prophecies or trends in society which “prove” Jesus is coming very soon, Peter argues first that God keeps his promises, even if there is a long time between promise and fulfillment.  Second, if there is a delay, that delay is a reflection of God’s mercy and his hope that those facing judgment will repent.  I think this is  the point of 3:8 (“a day is like a thousand years”) is to point out that God often gives a long time for repentance.

Does this sort of “strategy” work today?  How does a Christian firmly hold to the return of Jesus while separating from the more embarrassing examples of recent years?

Hebrews 12:18-29 – Marching to Zion

The writer of Hebrews concludes his book by using a common metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God – they are in the wilderness and coming to Mt. Sinai.  It is clear that the writer has Sinai in mind in verses 18-21, but he draws a strong contrast between the “mountain which could be touched” (Sinai) and Zion, a mountain which cannot be touched.  In order to describe this contrast between the two covenants, he contrasts the two mountains where the covenants were enacted.  He combines texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy which describe the theophany at Mt. Sinai as fearsome and then compares them to our heavenly destination, Mount Zion.

The writer begins saying that salvation in the present age is not at all like the Old Covenant.  Sinai was a  physical place, which can be touched, but it is a place burning with fire.  There may be a bit more referred to here than just the mountain itself.  The word for “touched” is to “make an effort, despite difficulties, to come to know something, when the chances of success in such an enterprise are not particularly great – ‘to feel around for, to grope for, to try to find.’” (Louw/Nida) It is used of a “groping about like a blind man” (LS)

When you read the passage from Exodus it is clear that there was a tangible “feeling” of the presence of God, but the people were not comforted by it at all, they were terrified.  The image is of a person robbed of sight, feeling around for something that cannot really grasp.

The story of the terror of Mt. Sinai is, for the writer, a summary of the Old Covenant, it could not bring a relationship with God, it could only bring fear and judgement.   The New Covenant, however, does not bring its participants to Mt Sinai, but rather to Mt. Zion.

In contrast to this terror, the New Covenant is associated with Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God.  While the physical Zion was the original name of the fortress captured by David in Jerusalem in 2 Samuel, Zion replaces Sinai as the focal point of Israel’s relationship with God in the prophets.  Isaiah 25, for example, describes Israel and all the nations gathering at Zion to eat the feast which the Lord has prepared there, rather than at Sinai.  Because the Lord “dwelt” in Zion, the place became a metaphor for heaven itself, the real dwelling place of God.  Here in Hebrews the City of God is called Zion, the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Instead of terror, our entry to Mount Zion is described as a joyful celebration.  There are thousands of angels in a joyful festival.  This “festival” (πανήγυρις).  The word is used only here in the New Testament and only four times in the LXX (Ez 46:11; Hos 2:13; 9:5; Am 5:21, all religious feasts). So too in classical Greek the word refers to a festal assembly in honor of some god.

But this is not only a “party,” the writer says that we are coming to God, the Judge of all men.  The entrance into heaven is to come into the presence of God.  God is described here as a Judge.  The word judge always has a negative connotation in our minds, though some take this word as meaning “vindicator” or “avenger.”  The entrance into God’s holy city is the ultimate vindication for our lives of suffering here on earth.

Salvation in the New Covenant therefore results in the glory of Heaven.  Instead of marching in the wilderness, we are Marching to Zion.

Book Review: Bingham and Kreider, eds. Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches

Bingham, D. Jeffrey and Glenn R. Kreider, Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2016. 501 pp. Hb; $36.99.   Link to Kregel

Although the fact is not mentioned on the cover of this book or on the Kregel website, this collection of essays on eschatology is a Festschrift for Craig A. Blaising on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. Steven L. James offers a short biographical sketch and bibliography of Blaising’s publications. Blaising has served as president of the Eschatology-BinghamEvangelical Theological Society in 2005 and was active in the Dispensational Study Group at ETS in the late 1980s. As a result of that study group, he co-edited Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (Zondervan, 1992) and co-authored Progressive Dispensationalism (Baker, 1993) with Darrell Bock. As the editors point out in their preface, although Blaising is primarily known for his work in dispensationalism and eschatology, he contributed articles and conference talks on theological method, Athanasius of Alexandria, patristic biblical interpretation, and John Wesley.

The twenty-six essays in this collection are divided into four parts. The first section, The Doctrine of the Future and Its Foundation, concern theological method. D. Jeffrey Bingham deals with what he considers the fundamental problem of biblical theology, do the difference between the Old and New Testament involve discontinuity between the testaments? Despite the reputation dispensationalism has for favoring discontinuity, Bingham cites Blaising as arguing Christ gives the dispensations their unity. Stanley Toussaint contributes a biblical theology of hope, concluding that a proper study of prophecy will lead to renewed hope in a sovereign God. Charles Ryrie has a short essay on what he considers the “weakening of prophecy” by preterist interpreters. The article is too brief to engage preterists directly (he only cites R.C. Sproul as an example) and engages in a weak rational defense of prophecy using statistics.

More helpful is an article on predictive prophecy and the doctrine of God by John D. Laing and Stefana Dan Laing. By examining prophecies which were fulfilled within the Old Testament itself, the authors argue messianic prophecies ought to be taken seriously, especially since Jesus himself invited his followers to interpret the “signs of the times” (Matt 16:3) in order to understand God’s redemptive plan. Conservative readers will have no problem with Laing’s Old Testament examples of Daniel’s four kingdoms or Isaiah’s prediction of Cyrus the Great. However anyone holding to a later date for Daniel or Isaiah 40-55 will see these as vaticinium ex eventu, prophecies written after the event, rendering the argument of the essay less sure.

The second section, The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible, collects eight essays to form a biblical theology of the future. Essays cover major sections of the Old Testament, including the Deuteronomy (Daniel I. Block), the Historical Books (Gregory Smith), The Psalms (George Klein), and the Prophets (Mark Rooker). Block’s essay on eschatology in Deuteronomy is the highlight of the book. He argues the book of Deuteronomy anticipates the “first phase” of Israel’s distant future and our past (the exile), but also a “second phase” in our future (restoration from exile). The eschatological vision of Deuteronomy includes not only the preservation of Abraham’s seed among the nations, but also a change in the Lord’s disposition towards them so that he will restore them to the Promised Land (133). Block thinks the return from Babylon was a partial fulfillment of prophecy since those who returned were small in number and only occupied a small portion of the land. More importantly, although they were blessed by God, the restored temple was a shadow of what was expected and doomed to be destroyed again in A.D. 70.

Four essays on the New Testament include the Synoptic Gospels (Darrell Bock), John’s Writings (David Turner), Paul’s Writings (W. Edward Glenny) and Hebrews and the General Epistles (David Allen). Bock’s article is representative of the application an “already-not yet” view of prophecy common in progressive dispensationalism. David Turner’s essay on John’s view of the future must first argue that John’s Gospel has an eschatology, since the Gospel is often dismissed as an example of realized eschatology. Based on his collection of evidence from the Gospel fo John, Turner argues the ‘difference between John and the Synoptic Gospels should not be overly pressed” (225).

The eleven essays in the third section, The Doctrine of the Future in the History of Christian Thought, range from historical theology in the Apostolic fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origin, Athenasius, Augustine), the Reformation (Calvin, Anabaptist thought, Jonathan Edwards), and contemporary theology (Baptist, Dispensationalism, Jürgen Moltmann, and “contemporary European theology”). It may seem odd to see Calvin, Anabaptists, Moltmann and Dispensationalism in the same volume, but this is an indication that dispensational idea are found in many different streams of theology (even if the combination of these threads is unique to dispensationalism). Mark Bailey’s essay on the future in Dispensationalism is refreshing since it avoids the kind of wild predictions most people associate with the system.

Finally, the three essays under the heading The Doctrine of the Future and Christian Ministry include pastoral care (J. Denny Autrey), Contemporary Challenges (R. Al Mohler, Jr.) and The Marketplace (Stephen Blaising, Craig’s brother). The first two of these essays are rooted in historical theology. Mohler, for example, uses the model of Augustine’s two cities to argue any doctrine of the future must engage with contemporary culture.

Conclusion. This collection of essays serves as a worthy tribute to Craig Blaising, even if it is marketed as a textbook on Eschatology rather than a Festschrift. Many of the writers either self-identify with dispensationalism or are familiar with the contributions of progressive dispensationalism. This too is overlooked in the marketing of the book, but not unexpected given the current antipathy for dispensational thought in scholarship. But the essays in this collection absolutely do not represent the kind of wild-eyed craziness that passes for dispensationalism today. In fact, most of the essays in the collection which can be fairly pigeon-holed as dispensational are very similar a narrative theology, seeking to find the unity of the whole canon of Scripture via the teaching of the whole Bible on the past, present and future.

The book provides an overview of eschatology from a moderately conservative and vaguely dispensational perspective. Given these constraints, Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches would indeed make a good textbook for a Bible college or Seminary classroom, although most of the articles will be valuable to pastors and teachers preparing to teach on the future in their churches.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

What Do the Seven Thunders Say in Revelation 10:3-4?

The Mighty Angel stands in his place and speaks.  The speech is described as the roar of a lion, and he is answered by the “seven thunders.” This description is significant for several reasons. It is the only place in Revelation where an angelic messenger speaks, but the words are not recorded.  Why is the shout described in this way, and not recorded?

First, thunder is a stock metaphor for divine speech. In the Hebrew Bible, the voice of God is often described in terms of thunderous noise (2 Sam 22:14/Psalm 18:3; Job 37:2-5). It is possible thunderous speech is related to the description of the Lord as the “lion of Judah” (Amos 1:2, 3:8). Occasionally angels have voices like thunder, such as 3 Baruch 11:4, and in The Odyssey, Zeus speaks like thunder.

3 Baruch 11:4 And while we were waiting, there was a noise from the highest heaven like triple thunder. And I Baruch said, “Lord, what is this noise?” And he said to me, “Michael is descending to accept the prayers of men.”

So he spoke in prayer, and Zeus the counsellor heard him. Straightway he thundered from gleaming Olympus, from on high from out the clouds; and goodly Odysseus was glad. (The Odyssey, 20.100-104).

Why are there “seven thunders?” Psalm 29:3-9 has a seven fold description of the voice of God as thunder (although the word “voice” is not repeated seven times.)  There is a rabbinic tradition that the voice of God was heard as seen thunders on Mt. Sinai (Exod. Rab. 28:6).

As John prepared to write the content of the words spoken by the thunders, a “voice from heaven” prevents him. John is told to “seal up the vision” and not write it down. The source of the voice is not identified and it is common in Revelation for John to hear an unidentified voice from heaven. Given the background texts where a divine voice sounds like thunder, perhaps this is the voice of God prohibiting John from writing what the thunders said.

apocalyptic-thunderstorm

The way the command is given is odd: he is told to seal up the vision (which would imply keeping it a secret), but also not to write anything down.  If he had not written the words, what is the point of also sealing the scroll?  There is a tradition in Jewish apocalyptic of a person being given revelation but forbidden to share it. David Aune suggested this ensures that prophet alone knows the information, making him “wiser” than his readers.  It was a mark of authenticity to hold back a little revelation from the readers, if you gave it all then perhaps there were skeptics.

So what did the seven thunders say? Obviously we cannot know since it is still a secret, but John may have been given another series of judgments like the seals, trumpets, and bowls. He was told not to record this series for some reason. Caird suggested the reason John is told not to record the content of the visions is that God “cancelled” the judgments out of his grace and mercy (Revelation, 126-127). This would mean there were four sets of seven judgments, one set was set aside, perhaps an allusion to the four sets of curses in Leviticus 26:14-46.

Heavenly Throne Rooms in Apocalyptic Literature

Revelation 4-5 are often read only for their value in describing worship (worthy is the Lamb….) or their Angelology (Who are the elders?  What are the four living creatures?)  While these elements are certainly there, the function of Ezekiel-merkabathese chapters in Revelation is to introduce the vision of the seven seals.  The Lamb is worthy of the same worship applied to God, but this means he is also worthy to open the scroll with seven seals.

Revelation 4-5 is built first on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible. There are several texts which describe God as enthroned, such as Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2. In both of these passages the prophet sees a vision of God enthroned in heaven surrounded by otherworldly angelic creatures (seraphim in Isaiah, cherubim in Ezekiel). In both cases the prophet is stunned by the vision and eventually commissioned to a prophetic office. In Revelation 4 there is a central throne, angelic beings, but John is not a prophet as much as an observer of the impending judgment contained in the scroll given to the Lamb to open.

Yet there are many elements which are “stock imagery” in Jewish apocalyptic. First, the “door of heaven” is opened, is a common apocalyptic element.  The idea of going “up to heaven” may be drawn from Gen 28:17 or Ps 78:23, but is developed in non-biblical apocalyptic into the idea that heaven is closed.  Only the visionary is invited to “come up” into heaven.

3 Maccabees 6:18 Then the most glorious, almighty, and true God revealed his holy face and opened the heavenly gates, from which two glorious angels of fearful aspect descended, visible to all but the Jews.

1 Enoch 14:8-9 And behold I saw the clouds: And they were calling me in a vision; and the fogs were calling me; and the course of the stars and the lightnings were rushing me and causing me to desire; and in the vision, the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven.

Second, John hears a “voice like a trumpet.”  This too is a common apocalyptic element as trumpets are used to signal an announcement. Perhaps this is a description of some king of ecstatic state.  John’s body remains on Patmos, but in his spirit (mind?) he experiences heaven.  Paul appears to have experienced the same sort of thin in 2 Cor 12:1-4, in non-biblical apocalyptic 1 Enoch 70-73 and 81 are quite similar.

 1 Enoch 71:1-2 (Thus) it happened after this that my spirit passed out of sight and ascended into the heavens. And I saw the sons of the holy angels walking upon the flame of fire; their garments were white—and their overcoats—and the light of their faces was like snow.

Third, as John enters heaven in the Spirit, he sees a fantastic throne (Rev 4:2-3). This vision is very similar to that of Ezekiel 1-3 as well as Isaiah 6, but the main source of imagery appears to be Daniel 7:9-27. Again, there is some element of“stock language” in the description of the throne. Throne imagery is important in Revelation, although John never names the one on the throne. It is as if he cannot find a word to describe the glory of God associated with the throne.

 Testament of Levi 5:1 At this moment the angel opened for me the gates of heaven and I saw the Holy Most High sitting on the throne.

John is describing heaven exactly the way any Jewish reader would have expected heaven to look in the late first century. Imagine if he had described heaven like a modern office complex, or Disneyland (the allegedly happiest place on earth) or a resort in the Caribbean. The original readers would not understand the imagery, since they were expecting these sorts of stock images of “what heaven might look like.”

This should be a warning against using these descriptions to create a list of things about “what heaven is really like” since John is expressing himself in terms a Second Temple period Jew would understand.