Eschatology In The Epistles
New Testament epistles are sprinkled with eschatological references which have led to confusion and the belief that the rules of hermeneutics must be re-written to accommodate particular eschatological systems. We will now survey how these Epistles make eschatological references and how we might best understand them.
A Sense of Imminence
¶ The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.
First Peter 4:7
The eschatology found in the New Testament Epistles conveys an expectation of imminence. Each of the writers had a sense that something was about to happen very soon. It could be argued that they were misguided and that the Scriptures accurately recorded their misinformed views. We see evidence of this sort of thing throughout the Old Testament where misinformed human perspectives were accurately recorded in God’s inspired Word. This includes such statements like, “from the rising of the sun” (Psalm 50:1; Isaiah 45:6; Malachi 1:11). Of course, we know that the sun doesn’t rise but from the perspective of the human authors it appeared to. But this doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing happening in the Epistles. Unlike the genre of the Psalms or Prophets, these eschatological statements found in the Epistles are not poetic. They are presented as statements of fact – often linked to an injunction (1Peter 4:7; Hebrews 10:24-25). If it is the New Testament perspective is actually just the accurate recording of misguided human opinion, it then makes the linked injunctions (moral commands) redundant.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
A far more appealing explanation is that the imminent time-frame references in the Epistles reflect God’s view of time. That is, when the Divinely inspired Word uses language such as, “now”, “at hand”, “the hour has come”, “the Day drawing near”, “the end of the ages has come”, it needs to be understood that each of these could mean two thousand years or more from God’s perspective. After all, it is claimed, a day with the Lord is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day (Psalm 90:4; 2Peter 3:8). But this is a problematic explanation of these eschatological time-frame references.
¶ Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
While it is true that God’s perception of time is different from ours, a careful examination of Scripture reveals something akin to what John Calvin described about how God must stoop like a nanny talking to an infant when He speaks to us in the Bible –
For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.
The Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13
That is, God generally speaks in the Scriptures in a way that accommodates our understanding. In so doing, He takes care not to deceive us. Thus, when He told the Prophet Daniel to seal up the words of his prophecy for they are a long time into the future – which turned out to be about 400 years, God was using far time references in the common usage of the term.
The vision of the evenings and the mornings that has been told is true, but seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now.”
To be consistent then, when God uses time-frame references like, “now”, “at hand”, “the hour has come”, “the Day drawing near”, “the end of the ages has come”, it is reasonable to conclude that whatever He was referring to was about to happen within the immediate and foreseeable future of the original audience. As we have noted from our discussion about Christ’s Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), the expression, the end of the age cannot mean the end of the world, but must mean the end of the Old Covenant Age as represented by the Temple. This age was brought to an end in AD 70. Thus, the eschatological time-frame references in many of the Epistles makes perfect sense.
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
First Corinthians 10:11
Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
First Corinthians 15:24
¶ But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.
Second Timothy 3:1
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.
knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.
Second Peter 3:3
The Epistles To The Thessalonians
The Apostle Paul was only in Thessalonica around a month and a half. Yet in that time he was able to plant a thriving church. Perhaps more than any of Paul’s other epistles, his epistles to the Thessalonians are predominantly eschatological. It seems that the Apostle made eschatology integral to the Gospel, and one of the compelling reasons for the conversion of many Thessalonians to Christ.
For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
First Thessalonians 1:9-10
Paul makes an appeal to the Thessalonians to continue to strive toward deepening their love for each other, and growing in godliness – because Christ’s coming was imminent.
¶ Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming (Gr. parousia) of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
First Thessalonians 3:11-13
After Timothy returned from his mission to Thessalonica, he reported back to the Apostle Paul that many in the church were confused about some of the details of the Apostle’s eschatological teaching. Because they were led to believe that the parousia and the return of Christ were a single event, which they were also led to believe would be the occasion of the translation of the righteous to be rescued by the returning Christ. But it appears that some of their number had died since Paul had left them. This, they believed, meant that those dead church members would miss out on being rescued. Paul needed to clarify things.
¶ But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.Therefore encourage one another with these words.
First Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul is correcting the Thessalonians’ understanding of the resurrection of the righteous dead. Those who have died, he writes, will not miss out on being resurrected, on the contrary, they will be the first to enjoy it. And this will happen when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. This was the understanding by the early Christians for the next 1800 years or so and it was enshrined in the the Nicene Creed which formulated in the fourth century.
WE BELIEVE in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made;
who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven,
and, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man,
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.
He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.
And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life,
who proceedeth from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified,
who spoke by the prophets.
And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
And we look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
The Nicene Creed, 325AD
While this Creed was largely designed to correct Arianism’s false notions about Jesus being a created being, it is also quite eschatological: we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. (You might notice that there is no hint of anything resembling a secret rapture in this statement.)
In addition to correcting the Thessalonians’ misunderstanding about the resurrection of the dead, Paul also implies that he is reminding them about the timing of the parousia (the coming judgment by Christ) to fulfil His Olivet Discourse prophecies.
¶ Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.
First Thessalonians 5:1-4
Paul once again draws the application from eschatology that believers should strive to live holy (Christ-like) lives. The goal of the Christian life, the Apostle concludes, is to be sanctified (set apart for God in attitude and actions) completely by God.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;
First Thessalonians 4:3-5
¶ Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming (Gr. parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ.
First Thessalonians 5:23
Thankfully (because we are the beneficiaries of Paul’s further insights in his second epistle to them), the Thessalonians still didn’t quite understand what the Apostle Paul was telling them. It seems that they received the correction about their misunderstanding about the nature of the resurrection, but despite the Apostle indicating that although they could trust that Christ’s Olivet prophecies of His coming judgment would soon be fulfilled, they had failed to appreciate that Paul was also telling them to not be idle in the meantime.
and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
First Thessalonians 4:11-12
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
First Thessalonians 5:14
Paul’s Eschatology In Second Thessalonians
The occasion for the Apostle’s second epistle to the Thessalonians is two-fold. Firstly, some in the church had misunderstood Paul’s main point about the imminent parousia. They had become idle. What’s the point of toiling at a job when Christ is about to return and usher in His Kingdom? Secondly, persecution against the Thessalonian believers was growing.
¶ This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and results in your being considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are indeed suffering.
Second Thessalonians 1:5
Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, now makes a distinction between the parousia (judgment by Christ to fulfil His Olivet Discourse) and the erchomai (coming [back]) of Christ.
For it is a righteous thing for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted, and to us as well, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting punishment on those who do not know God, and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will experience the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power on that day when he comes (from Gr. erchomai) to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at by all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Second Thessalonians 1:6-10
In Second Thessalonians chapter 1, Paul is describing Christ’s return. This corresponds to Christ’s description of His coming to judge all nations in Matthew 25.
Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
While, in Second Thessalonians chapter 2, Paul is describing Christ’s coming in judgment on Jerusalem. We can see this by reference to the High Priest, the one charged to uphold the Law of God, with the ironic description of him being the man of lawlessness.
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,
Second Thessalonians 2:3
To further identify who Paul is referring to, he leaves his readers in no doubt with the statement that this man of lawlessness is the one who takes his seat in the temple of God.
who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.
Second Thessalonians 2:4
And to drive home the point that this was about to happen, Paul states this very thing was already at work – not that it would begin two millennia or so later!
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.
Second Thessalonians 2:7
Josephus tells us that when the Romans finally breached the siege of Jerusalem that the soldiers went on a killing rampage. It was then that the High Priest and the other priests came out of the Temple to surrender, he tells us. But the Romans would have none of it. The High Priest and the remaining priests of the Temple were all immediately executed. This fulfilled what the Apostle Paul told the Thessalonians would happen with the metaphoric language, “whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of His mouth”.
And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of His coming (parousia).
Second Thessalonians 2:8
Having given this clarification to his eschatological teaching, the Apostle concludes his second epistle to the Thessalonians by admonishing those who were idle. Their wrong understanding of the imminent parousia as being the time of the final consummation of God’s entire redemptive plan needed to be corrected. The application of Paul’s eschatology, with a distinction between the parousia (the Judgment on Jerusalem and the abolishing of the Old Covenant) and the return of Christ, was that each believer must see their work as part of the worship of God and one of the essential means by which the Holy Spirit worked sanctification into a believer. Whatever a believer’s work, regardless of how menial they may have considered it, was an act of servant-hearted good for another. It should be done gladly as unto the Lord Himself.
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
¶ As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
Second Thessalonians 3:10-13
Dr. Andrew Corbett