Thursday, July 13, 2017

Paul, Eschatology, And The Kingdom Of God (Part 2)

Part 1 is available here.

AP: The first thing that catches your attention as you read the passages mentioned in Part 1 is that something seems like it is missing in the letters of Paul. Missing is the common Jewish understanding that the kingdom of God would come to the physical land of Israel, as the material aspect of that kingdom. That is quite different than the concept for he kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus, even though in the Gospels even that characteristic is not jumping off the page. According to Jesus, the kingdom of God will have material goods, such as plentiful food and drink. There would also be spiritual goods, and among them will be the renewed fellowship with God, the joy of fulfilling his law, and spiritual peace. But Paul did not think of the kingdom (βασιλεία) in this way. His theology was conditioned conditioned by the needs and characteristics of most of his readers within the Roman Empire: former polytheists, most likely those known as "God-fearers," for whom a Jewish kingdom of God in the land of Israel and full of material goods made no sense whatsoever. Paul, on the contrary, indicates that the true kingdom of God is not something intramundane (i.e., occurring within the physical world) but ultramundane (i.e., something beyond this world). Not only this, but Paul seems to distinguish between "kingdom of the Messiah" and "kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 15:22–28).

The absence of material goods in the kingdom of God, according to Paul, is easily elucidated because for him (1 Thess. 4:15–18) the "carnal" goods do not belong to an ultramundane kingdom of God; therefore, food and drink are not matters that affect that kingdom (Rom. 14:17), neither then nor in the future. Nothing carnal or perishable will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). This theology helps spread the Stoic concept of "indifferent" material, referring to food, drink, wealth, etc. In addition, the end of the world was imminent because "the time that remains" until the end is very short (1 Cor. 7:29: "I say to you, brothers, time is short").

According to Paul, the first assurance of the coming of the kingdom is the resurrection of Jesus as the first fruits (1 Cor. 15:23) followed by those who believe in him, each according to his order (1 Cor. 15:23); Paul tells the Thessalonians that the dead in Christ (i.e., those who have believed in Jesus and already died; lit. "those who are asleep") will experience the resurrection first. The second assurance is the divine "call" by grace to enter that kingdom (1 Thess. 2:10–12). We already know that, in Paul's theology, those who are to be saved have been predestined by God from eternity past.

In 1 Thess. 4:15–17, Paul affirms he relies on "a word of the Lord" when it comes to what he teaches on this matter. He does not, however, expressly tell the Thessalonians the content of that revelation. It probably refers to something similar to the tradition recorded in Matt. 16:28: "There are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." And Paul considered himself among those who would not taste death, initially that is. He seems to waiver on this conviction later in his life. When he writes to the Philippian believers, he seems almost certain that he will receive the death penalty (Phil. 1:21; see also Acts 19:23–40).

Paul does not paint the whole picture when it comes to this final event. He only gives them a few brush strokes, and assumes that his readers are satisfied with only a few details, despite some shortcomings in matters of faith that they unfortunately still have (1 Thess. 3:10). In general, the outline of the final events is that which can be found in the Jewish apocalyptic leading up to the final judgment (Jubilees 36:10, Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 3:10; 19:12, 2 Bar. 51:11).

We'll pick up here next.

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