New Testament Eschatology: Part 4 of 7 Acts

According to Acts, Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated his messianic reign, and his giving of the Holy Spirit inaugurated his rule through the Christian church (Acts 1:8; 2:1-43). The events at Pentecost (Acts 2) were understood by Peter as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy concerning the last days where God’s Spirit would ascend upon all of God’s people (Joel 2:28 cf. Acts 2:15-17).[1] G.K. Beale writes,

The reason why the coming of the Spirit is perceived in such a highlighted eschatological manner is that one of its purposes was to demonstrate the exalted, heavenly messianic kingship of Jesus, as a result of the resurrection from the dead. This was natural because the spirit was linked with the future hope of resurrection life in the OT and in Judaism.[2]

Moreover, Acts portrays a future expectation and fulfillment of the “latter days.” Acts 1:6-7 depicts Jesus’ disciples asking “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6), and Jesus responded, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (v.7). Acts 3:21 refers to Jesus’ ascension and return by stating, “Heaven must receive him [Jesus] until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Lastly, the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:30-31 and 26:6-7 refers to a future day of judgement at the end of history and to “a hope of the promise of a final resurrection for the nation of Israel.”[3]

[1] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 136-137. [2] Beale, A New Testament, 137. [3] Beale, A New Testament, 138.

New Testament Eschatology: Part 3 of 7 Gospel of John

Like the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John refers to a future final judgement and bodily resurrection that is coming on “the last day” (Gr. τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ). In John 12:48, Jesus states, “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.” In John 6:40, Jesus states, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (See also 6:39, 44, 54; 11:24.) It was believed that when the messiah comes, he would exist forever (John 12:34), and so Jesus promises that those who are in him will have “eternal life” (Gr. ζωὴν αἰώνιον) or life that will continue “unto the age” (Gr. εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα) (John 4:14; 6:51, 58)[1]

The Gospel of John uses more emphatic language than the synoptic gospels in describing the inaugurated “latter days.” In John 5:24-29, Jesus explains that the resurrection and eternal life has already come and is coming in the future. Jesus states,

Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.

 Furthermore, in John 16, Jesus signals the beginning of the “latter days” by stating “a time is coming” (v. 2, 25, 32) and “in fact has come” (v. 32) when referring to a future and present tribulation. Lastly, in John 4:21-24, Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, and he states, “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (v. 21), and “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (v. 23).[2]

[1] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 131. [2] Beale, A New Testament, 131-134.

New Testament Eschatology: Part 2 of 7 Synoptic Gospels

Throughout the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) there is an implied emphasis on Jesus inaugurating the “latter days” as described in the First Testament. This is seen throughout the narratives where the writers refer to lineage, to messianic titles, to prophetic fulfillment, to miraculous signs, and to the arrival of the kingdom of God.[1] As for specific instances of eschatological language throughout the synoptic gospels, there is not much to draw from; however, when it does appear in the writings, the focus is on the future final “age” (Gr. αίων) that is on the horizon.

Matthew uses the phrase the “end of the age” (Gr. συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος) to refer to a future coming final judgement and to refer to Christ’s ongoing presence with his people until he comes again (Matt 13:39-40; 24:3; 28:20). Mark 10:30 and Luke 18:30 refer to the saints who will receive “in the age to come, eternal life” (Gr. ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον) which is linked with the phrase in Luke 20:34-35 “of that age to attain and in the resurrection from the dead” (Gr. τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου τυχεῖν καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως τῆς ἐκ νεκρῶν).[2]

Moreover, Luke 1:33 refers to Jesus’ messianic reign lasting “into the ages” (Gr. εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας) and “of his kingdom there will be no end” (Gr. τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος). Lastly, the synoptic gospels refer to the coming signs and events that precede the “end” (Gr. τέλος).[3] Matthew 24:6 states, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (cf. Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9). Matthew 24:13-14 states, “but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

[1] K.E. Brower, “Eschatology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (NDBT), edited by T. Desmond Alexander, et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 461. [2] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 130[3] Beale, A New Testament, 130.

New Testament Eschatology: Part 1 of 7 Contextual Background

In order to begin a study on New Testament eschatology, one must understand that the first Christians were Jewish, and so they would have been influenced by Jewish eschatology. Furthermore, the first Christians also lived within the predominant Greco-Roman World, and so the eschatological views of the contextualized Greco-Roman culture should also be explored.

Jewish Thought

The first Christians were rooted in the Old Testament (I prefer to say First Testament) and Second Temple Judaism and most of the eschatological themes found in the First Testament are also found in Second Temple Jewish literature. At that time, eschatological views were fixed on a series of events in which God would intervene by ending the oppression of Israel and by establishing his rule.[1] The First Testament and Jewish literature often refer to the “latter days” as a time marked by tribulation, persecution, apostasy and exile, which is followed by the culmination of history due to the final arrival of a conquering leader (Messiah) from Israel who would permanently deliver the Israelites and exercise judgment over their enemies.[2] At this time, God would raise from the dead the saints of Israel while establishing a kingdom on earth and entering into a new covenant with Israel. Moreover, some of Israel’s enemies (Gentiles) would experience mercy and deliverance by God.[3] Thus, the “latter days” ultimately meant that there would be a future period defined by an irreversible, permanent and extreme change from the preceding period.[4]

For the Israelites, there was a hope of a future greater people, greater covenant, greater land, and greater king. In other words, during the “age to come,” there would be a spiritual people who would be the inheritors of the faith, a new covenant that would be written on the hearts of God’s people and would supersede the covenant mediated by Moses, a land described as the new heaven and the new earth and a king who would rule and reign through his defeat of evil and of Satan.[5] In Jewish thought, the strong and prevailing conviction was that in the future God would act in a powerful and transformative way on behalf of his people.[6]

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) at Wadi Qumran in 1947 has contributed to the understanding of eschatological thought within Judaism from about 250 BCE to the first century CE. Discovered in the DSS were copies (QNJ collection) of an unknown writing which describes an apocalyptic vision of the renewed heavenly Jerusalem in the eschatological age. This text appears to have relied heavily upon Ezekiel 40-48.[7]

Moreover, the Qumran War Scroll (1QM) depicts a final battle on earth between the redeemed of God or the “Sons of Light,” led by the warrior angels Melchizedek and Michael, and the forces of evil or the “Sons of Darkness.” The “Sons of Light” defeat the “Sons of Darkness.” However, the text is more theological in nature than a military composition, and it appears to have been influenced by Daniel 7-9, Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah 12-14 and 1 Enoch.[8]

Greco-Roman Thought

The ancient Greek religions and philosophies had numerous views on life after death or on last states of the cosmos. The tales of Homer portrayed the idea of an underworld where dreary souls wandered after death;[9] by contrast, Plato believed that the soul is the divine self that exists eternally and is preferred over the physical body. In fact, in his view, the physical body incarcerates the soul after a fall from the eternal realm. Therefore, the soul needs a liberation from the body followed by a series of reincarnations in order to return to the eternal realm with the One.[10] According to Plato, only noble souls would survive the death-reincarnation cycle and arrive at a state of perfect and ascending knowledge.[11]

Other Greek philosophers believed that upon death people would transform into a star in the galaxy or undergo a reincarnation of some sorts. The Epicureans advocated for an absolute non-existence or complete extinction after death.[12] Epicurus writes, “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing for us.”[13] Another ancient belief of the afterlife is that the deceased continued to live a peaceful, soulish life in the tomb. This is supported by archaeological discoveries of ancient tombs that had openings so that gifts, food and drinks could be delivered.[14]

The Stoic philosophers believed in an endless, repeating cycle of the cosmos. When one cosmic cycle completed, another cycle began repeating the same ordered history. Thus, upon death, a soul would be temporarily extinct until the current cosmic cycle ended and then restarted. Chrysippus sums up this view by writing, “Socrates and Plato will exist again and every man with his friends and his fellow citizens; he will suffer the same and do the same and do the same. Every city, every village and field will grow again. And this restoration will not happen once, but the same will return without limit and end.”[15]

In view of all these ancient Greco-Roman beliefs, Hubbard explains that Greek philosophers were united on one point: “their denial of a bodily resurrection.”[16] This point is in sharp contrast with Jewish eschatology and as we will see with New Testament eschatology.

New Testament Eschatology

As mentioned earlier, the first Christians were Jewish, and so they were influenced by the First Testament and by Jewish eschatology; therefore, it should not be surprising that the Christian New Testament writers followed the First Testament’s use of the phrase “latter days.” While the New Testament’s use of “latter days” has the same overall meaning as in the First Testament, the New Testament uniquely views the “latter days” as beginning their fulfillment in the life and ministry of Jesus and as continuing until Jesus’ final return.[17] G.K. Beale writes,

The OT expectations of the great tribulation, God’s domination of the Gentiles, deliverance of Israel from oppressors, Israel’s resurrection, the new covenant, the new creation and the establishment of God’s kingdom have been set in motion by Christ’s death and resurrection and in the emergence of the Christian church.[18]

[1] T.A. Noble, “Eschatology,” in New Dictionary of Theology (NDT): Historical and Systematic, edited by Martin Davie et al. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), EPUB edition. [2] G.K. Beale, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (DLNT), edited by R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 330-331. [3] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 330-331. [4] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 114. [5] Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 169. [6] K.E. Brower, “Eschatology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (NDBT), edited by T. Desmond Alexander, et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 461. [7] L.D. Hurst, “Qumran,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (DLNT), edited by R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 997. [8] Hurst, “Qumran,” in DLNT, 997. [9] Moyer V. Hubbard, “Greek Religion” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts eds. Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 121. [10] Horton, The Christian Faith, EPUB edition, pt. 6, ch. 27, “Dualism and the Myth of the Exiled Soul. [11] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [12] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [13] Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 2 in Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.139 LCL quoted by Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [14] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [15] Stoicorum veterum fragmenta ed. H.v. Arnim, II, 190, 16 ss. quoted by Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 24. [16] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [17] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 331. [18] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 331.

The Structure of Covenants and Specific Covenants in Scripture

In his essay entitled “The Covenant Relationship,” Scott Hafemann explains the structure of covenants in the Scriptures. He argues for the threefold covenant structure of the relationship between God and his people.

The first structural element involves God’s providential and unconditional acts by which he establishes the covenant relationship. God always initiates the first move in the covenant relationship which is based on his love and grace.

The second part of the covenant structure involves “the covenant stipulations or ‘conditions’ which the covenant relationship is maintained.”[1] These stipulations have no merit in and of themselves, but rather they are stipulations of faith, hope and love in God. Thus, obedience to the covenant stipulations is not an exercise of personal willpower, but rather God graciously grants to his people the ability to obediently live according to the covenant stipulations.

The third aspect of the covenant structure involves “the covenant promises or curses based on keeping or not keeping the covenant.”[2] Future promises or curses are dependent on obedience in the present. Thus, God’s covenant promises are conditional based on the obedience of his people as an expression of faith in him.[3]

After explaining covenant structure, Hafemann discusses the different covenants he sees in Scripture. First, he describes the covenant at creation between Adam and Eve. While Hafemann acknowledges that the word ‘covenant’ is not used in Genesis 1-3, he explains that the narrative follows the threefold covenant structure. God freely and graciously initiates the relationship by creating them and providing for them. God gave the stipulations that Adam and Eve were to trust and depend upon him. God promised future blessings to Adam and Eve as they followed the stipulations, but also God promised curses if they lived apart from the stipulations.[4]

Next, Hafemann describes the Abrahamic covenant. God sovereignly and  unconditionally appeared to Abraham and called him to travel to Canaan where he would inherit the land and become the father of many nations. Abraham trusted and obeyed God throughout his life and by doing so, he fulfilled God’s covenant stipulations. God kept his covenant promises and showed his commitment to Abraham by sustaining him and blessing him.

Hafemann continues by describing the Sinai covenant which was an extension of the creation covenant and the Abrahamic covenant in that God purposed “to make for himself a people on the basis of his grace.”[5] Moreover, the Sinai covenant is similar to the prior covenants in that God pursued and delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and called them his people. He stipulated that they trust and obey him and following his stipulations would “mean the inheritance of God’s promise and the fulfilment of his purpose for the nation.”[6]

Lastly, Hafemann mentions the new covenant where Jesus established a new humanity for himself through his broken body, shed blood and resurrection. Under this new covenant, God’s people respond in faith and obedience. In the present life and in the life to come, they will experience God’s fulfilled promises and blessings.[7]

[1] Scott J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, edited by Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007, 27-28. [2] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 35. [3] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 38. [4] Hafemann, “The Covenant,”40-42. [5] Hafemann, “The Covenant,”45.[6] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 46. [7] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 48.

The History of Redemption and the Covenant Concept in Biblical Theology

Heilsgeschichte is a good German word that is often translated as “salvation history” or “the history of redemption,” and in his essay entitled “The Covenant Relationship,” Scott Hafemann explains the meaning of “the history of redemption.”  According to Hafemann, God’s self revelation occurs through actual events in history. Thus, God’s involvement in the world and with his people as conveyed in the Scriptures are not merely subjective human religious experiences. Rather, the Scriptures are God’s revelation of his real historical acts of rescuing humanity from evil, rebellion, sin and death. This is the  history of redemption. This is the one, true, unified redemptive story from creation to new creation.[1]

The biblical history of redemption is theocentric, and so the discipline of Biblical Theology is properly focused on God’s self-revelation of his character and his relationship with his people within salvation history. Moreover, within Biblical Theology, the theme of covenant is essential to understanding salvation history and the God‒human relationship because throughout the biblical narrative, “this relationship is expressed in and defined by the interrelated covenants that exist throughout the history of redemption.”[2] Although it is important to note that the interrelated covenants all pointed to the one relational covenant between God and his people. This covenant relationship is summarized in the ‘covenant formula’ where God declares, “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” and this covenant relationship provides the interpretive lens and the structure for understanding who God is and how he relates to his people within the unity and diversity of the biblical narrative.[3]

With this idea of covenant as an integrating concept of Scripture, Hafemann offers three important distinctions to consider. First, the distinction between covenant terminology and covenant reality. Interpreters should not despair at the scarcity of covenant terminology and its uneven use because the reality of covenant is present through other descriptive elements and imagery.[4]

Second, the distinction between the establishing of the formal covenants and the continuing personal relationship they initiate, presuppose, ratify and embody. This distinction recognizes the formal and legal aspects of covenants within the relationship to which they exist, but covenants are not equivalent to the relationship. In other words, the relationship can occur apart from the creation of a specific or formal covenant, but a covenant can then extend to the existing relationship.[5]

Third, the distinction between the covenant relationship throughout history and the covenant epochs within history. This involves the recognition that the Bible divides history into two epochs: this age and the age to come, and throughout this two-age concept, the Bible divides God’s relational history into the old covenant and new covenant.[6]

In view of these distinctions, Hafemann advocates for “unity reading of the Bible.” He explains that the Bible is “built upon a two age, two covenant conception, within which the individual covenants play their respective roles in the unfolding drama of a continuous history of salvation.”[7] Thus, the Bible should be read as one, unified story about God and his covenant people within two epochs and with individual covenants throughout redemptive history.[8]

[1] Scott J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, edited by Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 20-21. [2] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 21. [3] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 21-23. [4] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 24-25. [5] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 25-26. [6] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 27-28. [7] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 29. [8] Hafemann, “The Covenant,” 29-30.