Escorting the King of Kings?

In the previous article (Rapture Ready?) on the pre-tribulation ‘Rapture’ (PTR) we looked at, among other things, the primary passage used to support the doctrine, namely 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17. Parallel and similarly-themed passages to these Thessalonian verses—ones mentioning a “trumpet” in the context of the gathering of believers (both dead and alive)—were shown not to support the PTR. In fact, these parallel passages suggest a completely different understanding, which in turn suggests a non-PTR interpretation in the Thessalonian passage.

In this post we will more closely analyze this same passage. Understanding Paul’s primary and secondary purposes in preparing this passage will further support our non-PTR position. At the same time, this may provoke other intriguing lines of inquiry.

Additional Revelation

Before proceeding further, however, I shall provide two additional passages relating to Jesus’ Parousia. These were left off the preceding article due to length. They are presented here as further evidence for the previous article’s stance as well as background for the current one. Both are from Revelation. The first is the seventh of seven trumpets (cf. Rev 10:7), which is the last trumpet of all:

11:15 Then the seventh angel trumpeted, and [then] there were loud voices in heaven, saying: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. 16 Then the twenty-four elders, who sit upon their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God 17 saying: We give you thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and reign. 18 The nations/people were enraged, but then came your wrath and the time for the dead to be judged—and to reward your bond-servants: the prophets, the saints, and those who fear your name, the small and the great—and to destroy those who destroy the earth.

The above passage has its own focal points, yet this last of seven trumpets is certainly the same as the “last trumpet” of 1Corinthians 15:52—and, as pointed out in the previous article, the Corinthian passage is a parallel to 1Thess 4:15–17. Though the Parousia and the gathering of the saints are not explicitly mentioned, both are implied, given the other similarly-themed passages which do mention them. That is, the Parousia and gathering are assumed to be nearly coincident with the trumpet sound yet prior to he shall reign forever and ever (compare And so we shall be forever with the Lord in 1Thess 4:17). Judgment, in both its negative (“wrath”) and positive (“reward”) aspects, is one of the foci (cf. Matt 25:31–46, the sheep and goats). And judgment is the sole focus of the remaining Revelation passage we will explore:

14:14 Then I saw—behold!—a white cloud. And sitting upon this cloud was one like a son of man—upon his head a golden crown and in his hand a sharp sickle. 15 And then another angel/messenger came out of the temple crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting upon the cloud: Apply your sickle and reap! For the hour has come to reap, because ripe is the earth’s harvest. 16 And the one sitting upon the clouds thrust his sickle upon the earth and the earth was harvested.

The imagery of one like a son of man seated upon this cloud evokes both Daniel 7:13 (cf. Rev 1:7, 13–14) and Matt 24:30. One might initially mistake this passage as indicating negative judgment (cf. Joel 3:13)—perhaps especially considering the “sharp sickle” symbol—but that would misinterpret the ‘reaping of the harvest’ metaphor here and in its broader context. See Matt 3:11–12/Luke 3:16–17 and the parable of the weeds (Matt 13:24–30) for comparison. To keep in proper context, this Revelation passage (14:14–16) should be contrasted with the wrath of God expressly stated in the verses immediately following it (14:17–20;1 cf. 1Thess 5:3). Thus, Revelation 14:14–16 is the harvesting of believers—though no distinction is made between those still alive and the dead in Christ.

As Paul states in 1Thess 5:9: For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. We are saved from wrath, but not necessarily from tribulation (just ask the Thessalonians). We may suffer at the hands of our enemies (or not), but we will not suffer God’s wrath. Believers are whisked away just prior to God’s wrath pouring out upon the earth on the Day of the Lord.

A Closer Look

Now we will scrutinize the Thessalonians passage, adding verse 18 (1Thess 4:13–18):

4:13 Now brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who are sleeping, so that you will not grieve as the rest—those who have no hope. 14 For since we believe Jesus died and rose again, in this way also God will bring those who have fallen asleep through Jesus along with Him [Jesus]. 15 For this we say to you, by word of the Lord: We who are alive, those remaining until the coming [Parousia] of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 Because He, the Lord, will descend from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first; 17 then we who are alive, those remaining, shall be caught up [harpazō, ‘raptured’] together along with them, in the clouds, to meet [eis apantēsin] the Lord in the air. And so we shall be forever with the Lord. 18 So, encourage one another with these words.

Paul opens with a plea for the Thessalonians not to grieve about the dead in Christ (13–14) and closes with an exhortation to encourage each other (18). There seems to have been some mistaken notion about the ‘fate’ of the dead in Christ (13–14). The Thessalonian ekklēsia was primarily, if not exclusively, from a pagan background.2 Accordingly, they believed the dead had no positive future. Thus, Paul wanted to remind (or apprise) them of our future resurrection hope (14–17)—and the disposition of those surviving until Jesus’ Parousia. This future meeting of all believers dead and alive with Christ at the Parousia would provide the reason they could “encourage one another” (18) in the (then) present time.

So, Paul’s primary objective in this passage was to correct their misunderstanding—whatever this was exactly—regarding the dead in Christ (“those who have fallen asleep through Jesus”). And, toward this end, Paul quite likely went beyond what most English readers would perceive. That is, in his use of the verb harpazō (“caught up”) he may well have consciously repurposed this term (17) from pagan ideology, as Malherbe asserts:

Of special interest is the consolation tradition, which casts light on Paul’s use [of harpazō] and shows once more how he turns conventional expressions to a pastoral use. Epitaphs lament Fate’s snatching (harpazein) away the dead from their loved ones to Hades . . . Letters of condolence then use harpazein and its cognates in addressing or speaking of the grief stricken . . .

 . . . [Paul’s] purpose is to console . . . The dead in Christ will rise, and their separation from those who were left is overcome as, ironically, they are snatched up together with them. In a neat twist, Paul uses the conventional language of grief to comfort. He does not say who snatches them up, but v 14 would seem to indicate that it is God who gathers them together by snatching them up.3

In other words, Paul took a term (harpazō) with a negative connotation and inverted it. Instead of “Fate” ‘snatching’ all the dead to Hades forever, God will ‘snatch’ the dead in Christ together with those believers still alive at Jesus’ Parousia. We will all then meet Him “in the air”. The Apostle linguistically ties this idea together in his use of “along with Him [Jesus]” (syn autō̹) in verse 14 and “together along with them” (hama syn autois) in 17. In verse 14 God will bring/lead the dead in Christ along with Jesus, i.e., once the dead arise as Jesus had done God will snatch them (together with those yet alive) to meet Jesus in the air (17).4 As Paul states in his first Corinthian epistle, For the [last] trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (15:52).

In service of his primary objective, Paul necessarily had to explain some end time events. However, importantly, this was subsidiary. Similarly, in the immediately following section (5:1–11), Paul’s primary purpose is again pastoral, with a brief explanation of eschatology toward that goal. As Green helpfully explains in his overview of 1Thessalonians 5:1–11,

The purpose of the whole discussion of this theme is pastoral and not speculative (v. 11; cf. 4:13, 18). Paul demonstrates no interest in fueling an apocalyptic perspective in order to hypothesize about the end or to foster escapism. The teaching about final events is meant to inform and encourage them in their daily life and conduct. Clear thinking about the end is designed to help them live as true Christians in the present.5

The Day of the Lord comes as “a thief in the night” (5:2) solely with respect to unbelievers (5:3), not to believers, who will not be caught by surprise (5:4; cf. Luke 21:29–31). Importantly, note that Paul linguistically ties this section together with the previous section (1Thess 4:13–18): “Jesus died for us, so whether awake [alive] or sleeping [dead] we will live together along with Him (hama syn autō̹)” (5:10). Following this affirmation, Paul provides his concluding exhortation (5:11).

Where Do We Go From There?

An unanswered question in the Thessalonians passage—and not explicitly answered elsewhere in Scripture—is this: Where do we go after meeting Jesus “in the air”? Clearly, at the Parousia Jesus will descend from heaven (16), while believers will be caught up with Him “in the clouds” (17). One comes down, the others up. But once we meet “in the air”, where do we believers go? Do believers and Jesus go together, or do believers continue on to one destination, while Jesus proceeds to another?

In the PTR view, Jesus reverses course and believers continue on, escorting Him to heaven.6 But the analyses in this and the preceding article related to it have shown the PTR view to be insupportable when placed in the broader context of Scripture as a whole. Taking the similarly-themed passages as a group, the most logical movement for Jesus is to continue earthward, or, alternatively, to remain in the clouds to pour out His wrath upon the earth from there. Where, then, would believers go (or remain)? Scripture elsewhere records judgment/rewards at the end of the age (e.g., Daniel 12:1–3; John 5:28–29).

The remainder of this article will be necessarily speculative in probing for answers to this question of movement and/or destination. To be clear at the outset, I do not wish to make any firm conclusions from any of the data presented below. I am merely providing the following as intriguing [to me anyway] food for thought. That said, let’s dive into the data!

In 1Thess 4:16 the first command could be understood as a battle cry (see various English versions: “shout of command”, “cry of command”, etc.). And the “trumpet of God” could be similarly understood. Adding the “voice of the archangel”, Witherington observes, “The images are martial, as if Jesus were summoning His army.”7 These images accord well with the battle imagery of the Rider on the White Horse (Rev 19:11–16). Note that His army here includes those “wearing fine linen, pure white” (19:14; cf. 19:7–8; 7:9, 13–14). And Paul states something intriguing in 1Cor 6:2–3, almost in passing: “Do you not know that the saints/holy ones (hoi agioi) will judge the world? . . . Do you not know we will judge angels?” When are we to judge the world and the angels? Whatever the timing, this idea must be harmonized with God’s clear words, “Vengeance is mine” (Deut 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30).

In another article on CrossWise it was noted that the term Parousia had been used in antiquity for the fanfare surrounding the arrival of a king, ruler, or dignitary (see definition A2 here). The ISBE records how parousia was found in various inscriptions, noting specifically its application to the Greek god of medicine:

In Hellenistic Greek it was used for the arrival of a ruler at a place, as is evidenced by inscriptions in Egypt, Asia Minor, etc. Indeed, in an Epidaurus inscription of the 3rd century BC…‘Parousia’ is applied to a manifestation of Aesculapius [Aσκληπιός Asklēpiós]. Consequently, the adoption of Greek-speaking Christians of a word that already contained full regal and even Divine concepts was perfectly natural.8

Considering their pagan background, surely the Thessalonians understood Paul’s intention behind his use of Parousia. Such a regal backdrop can add substance to the battle imagery noted earlier. But there is even more to consider here.

The words translated “to meet” in 1Thess 4:17 are from the Greek eis apantēsin. This is an accusative (direct object) phrase, and the infinitive “to meet” in translation is somewhat of a compromise. The Greek is actually a preposition (eis, “into”, “in”, “for”) and noun (apantēsin, “meeting”). We might think of it more along the lines of eis martyrian in John 1:7: “This man came for testimony, to witness about the Light.” As such it would be more like: “for a meeting with the Lord in the air”.9

With that background, we can proceed further. Two different Christian sources claim this noun apantēsis (in its accusative form apantēsin) carried particular significance in Hellenistic culture:

According to 1 Th. 4:17 . . . there will be a rapture eis apantēsin tou kyriou eis aera [“to meet the Lord in the air”]. The word apantēsis (also hupantēsis . . .) is to be understood as a technical term for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors. Similarly, when Christians leave the gates of the world, they will welcome Christ in the aēr [“air”], acclaiming Him as kyrios [“Lord”].10

The word seems to have been a kind of technical term for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary—a usage which accords excellently with its New Testament usage.11

Before exploring the New Testament (NT) examples, a selection from historian Polybius (Histories, V 26:8–9) will illustrate its usage in Hellenistic culture near-contemporaneous with Scripture. Note that Polybius also uses a verb form (apantaō) of this noun to restate the initial meeting, and he uses a separate verb (gignomai, “came”) to record the escort back to Corinth:

So, with Apelles nearing Corinth, Leontius, Ptolemy and Megaleas—commanders of the foot soldiers and the other army divisions—with great urgency, spurred the young men to go for the meeting [eis tēn apantēsin] with him [Apelles]. Consequently, Apelles came [to Corinth] with great fanfare, due to the multitude of soldiers and officers who had come to meet [apantēsantōn] him, and marched directly to the royal court.12

Note that the welcoming party would first go out with the purpose of meeting the dignitary en route, and then turn back toward their own locale to accompany him for the remainder of his journey.

Backing up for a moment, it might prove beneficial to further define both apantēsis and hupantēsis. Each is a compound of a preposition + noun. The first is from the verb apantaō: apo (“from”) + antaō (from anti, meaning “against”, “opposite”, “instead of”). Danker defines the term ‘come opposite to’, hence ‘meet face to face’.13 The second is from the verb hupantaō: hupo (“under”, “below”) + antaō, defined as draw up close for encounter.14 The two are synonyms but may well have different nuances, depending on context.

The first NT passage we will explore is, appropriately, in the long discourse on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:1–25:46), which contains Jesus’ teaching on the end times. The passage in question is known as The Parable of the Ten Virgins:

25:1 “At that time the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins taking their lamps to meet [eis hupantēsin] the Bridegroom. 2 Now five of them were foolish, yet five wise. 3 For the foolish taking their lamps had not taken any oil with them, 4 but the wise had taken flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 Because of the Bridegroom’s long delay, they all became tired and fell asleep. 6 But in the middle of the night came a shout, ‘Look, the Bridegroom! Come out to meet [eis apantēsin] Him!’ 7 So all those virgins arose, and they trimmed their lamps. 8 Then the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil because our lamps are burning low.’ 9 But the wise replied, saying, ‘No, there may not be enough for both us and you. Go instead to the sellers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 But as they were leaving to buy, the Bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready entered the wedding with Him. Then the door closed. 11 Later the remaining virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us!’ 12 Replying, He said, ‘Amen, I say to you: I do not know you.’ 13 So, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The substance of this parable does not quite fit the pattern of going out to meet the dignitary, and then accompanying him back to the originating locale. However, it does match a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors. And the five wise did accompany Him to the wedding. Moreover, the content is thematically related to both 1Thess 4:13–18 and 1Thess 5:1–11. So it is useful for analysis.

As with any parable, it can be perilous to attempt to make concrete parallels to the figurative language. But it would be safe here to understand the oil as indicating degree of readiness. In this sense, the oil could signify the amount of Holy Spirit infilling (Eph 5:15–21). If so, this idea of purchasing oil could be understood as akin to Simon Magus, aka Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9–24)—except maybe for the fact that the five wise suggested the idea to the foolish. Whatever the case, it is clear that Jesus (the Bridegroom) ‘does not know’ the foolish (cf. Matt 7:21–23). All ten desired to meet Jesus, but half were not ready, thereby missing the wedding (Rev 19:6–9; cf. 19:17–18).

The next NT selection for consideration is in Acts 28, which follows the pattern of the Polybius’ passage. While on his journey to Rome, Paul is welcomed by some brothers from Rome, and the brothers accompany him for the rest of his trip:15

28:15 After hearing the things concerning us, the brothers from there [Rome] came up to Appias’ Forum and Three Taverns to greet (eis apantēsin) us. Upon seeing them, Paul, thanking God, was encouraged. 16 So when we entered [eiserchomai] into Rome, Paul was permitted to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

The next passage, like the first, is from Matthew’s Gospel. But it is very different in that it is regarding Jesus’ encounter with the two demon-possessed men from the land of the Gadarenes, whom he exorcises by sending the demons into nearby swine:

8:28 Upon His arrival to the other side, to the land of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs—exceedingly violent, such that no one is able to pass through that way—confronted [hupantaō] Him. 29 Excitedly they cried out, “What is it between us and you, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” 30 Off in the distance from them was a herd of many swine feeding. 31 So the demons begged Him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32 And He said to them, “Go!” So, after they came out, they went into the swine. Immediately, the entire herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and died in the waters! 33 Those who were tending the pigs fled; and then, going into town, they reported all, especially concerning the two demon-possessed men. 34 Then the whole town left to confront [eis hupantēsin] Jesus. Upon seeing Him, they urged that he should turn away [metabainō] from their borders.

Given the context, I decided to translate to the stronger “confronted”/“to confront” instead of simply “meeting”. The recurrence of the two words (verb in 28, noun in 34) may have been intended as a linguistic framing device to tie the story together. The final verse (34) is the primary one to analyze here, for it begins with the accusative eis hupantēsin and ends with the verb “turn away” (metabainō). I perceive the townspeople’s message here as one of ‘go away and don’t come back!’ Accordingly, I interpret this passage: After Jesus drove the demons out of the two men and into the herd of pigs, the townspeople drove Jesus from their town to any other!

In any case, verse 34 at least partly follows the pattern— it does not specify whether or not they escorted Jesus back to the shoreline—though in a negative way. That is, Jesus is not considered a dignitary by the townspeople. However, this could be a case of irony. That is, though the townspeople saw Jesus as villainous, the fact that they intercepted Him and essentially drove Him out of town, follows this pattern as if He were the dignitary He really is!

Tangentially, though still relatedly, observe the demons’ question to Jesus regarding “the appointed time”. Is this the time believers will “judge angels”?

The final passage to consider is The Triumphal Entry in John’s Gospel (John 12:12–15):

12:12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast, after hearing Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took palm branches and came to welcome [eis hupantēsin] Him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD: the King of Israel!” 14 Then Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat upon it, as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter of Zion. Behold! Your King is coming, sitting upon a donkey’s colt!”

 . . . 17 Now the crowd—those who were with Him when He called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead—continued bearing testimony. 18 Because of this also, the crowd greeted [hupantaō] Him—for they heard He had performed that miracle.

Though not explicit, it is strongly implied that those who went out with palm branches to welcome Jesus also escorted Him into Jerusalem. This, then, fits the Polybius pattern.

Verses 17–18 may not be directly related to The Triumphal Entry, but they do exhibit a similar pattern to the Polybius passage. The difference is that a verbal form is used instead of the accusative phrase.

What Can Be Concluded?

Having provided the applicable Hellenistic background and all the NT examples corresponding to or approximating this background, what, if anything, can we make of the data? Can any of this be used in attempting to determine where believers go immediately after our meeting in the air with Jesus?

What do you think?

____________________________

1 Note that these clusters of grapes are from the vine of the earth, that is, they get their sustenance from the earth as opposed to from the Lord (cf. John 15:1–17).

2 See 1Thess 1:9 how you turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

3 Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Anchor Yale Bible; Accordance electronic ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p 276. Emphasis added.

4 “Those who have fallen asleep through Jesus” will rise from the dead first, then both the newly-arisen/formerly-‘sleeping’ in Christ and believers yet still alive will be ‘snatched’ up together. This sequence is the most faithful to the text. It is probably only a nanosecond after the dead arise that both these newly-arisen and the remaining believers are ‘snatched’ up together by God to meet Jesus in the air. In this way, all believers will be ‘snatched’ up together simultaneously in order to have one single meeting “in the clouds” with Jesus. This concurs with Paul’s statement that those remaining (those alive) when Jesus comes “will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep”—the living will not precede the dead in Christ, but the dead in Christ will not precede those yet alive either, with respect to the meeting in the clouds. Put simply, we are all ‘snatched’ together (hama) “to meet the Lord in the air”.  Accordingly, the ‘Rapture’ is a ‘snatching’ of both the newly-raised-formerly-‘sleeping’and those still alive in Christ at His Parousia. This, then, conforms to the one gathering of believers in Matthew 24:31 and the one harvesting of believers in Rev 14:14–16. This also concurs with 1Cor 15:51–52: Take note! I tell you a mystery: Not all will sleep, but all will be changed—in an instant, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we [those yet living] will be changed. Paul then refers to the living as “the mortal”, which will be changed to “immortality” (15:53). In other words, Paul makes a distinction between the two groups and always places the dead before the living in the texts. Thus, all these passages easily harmonize by judiciously employing Occam’s razor.

5 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC); Accordance electronic ed., OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p 230. Emphasis added.

6 Very likely due to a committed PTR stance, Robert L. Thomas (“1 Thessalonians”, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians – Philemon, rev. ed., Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, gen. eds. [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006]) states: Since God the Father is in heaven, the verb ά̓ξεί (axei, “will bring” . . .) indicates that the destination of the movement of Jesus and those with him in this verse is upward, not downward. At this moment of Jesus’ return in the air, the company named will not move back to the earth but toward the Father’s presence in heaven . . . (p 418). But this does not necessarily follow.

7 Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), p 138.

8 Burton Scott Easton, “Parousia”, in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, Gen Ed., 1st Ed. (1915), prepared by Accordance/Oak Tree Software, Inc. Version 2.4, para 43388

9 I retained “to meet” in my translation above because no other English version translated it “for a meeting” and I did not wish to cause any initial confusion. It was decided to leave the explanation of “for a meeting” for later—here—when explaining this speculative portion.

10 Erik Peterson, “ἀπάντησις”, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), G. Kittel & G. Friedrich, eds.; transl. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–76), p 1:380; Greek transliterated, bold added.

11 J.H. Moulton & G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), p 53.

12 Polybius, Histories, V.26.8–9 [Book 5, Chapter 26, section 8–9] (my transl.); Greek text [transliterated above] Theodorus Büttner-Wobst after L. Dindorf, 1893, courtesy Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University, specifically  here.

13 Frederick W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p 40. Danker is the “D” in BDAG and the older BAGD.

14 Danker, Concise Lexicon, p 361.

15 Without a firm grasp of ancient geography—and Luke’s rather confusing narration in this part—it is difficult to follow Paul’s journey and that of the brothers who wish to welcome him; so, I’ll rely on the almost always reliable F. F. Bruce (1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary [Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982]): Cf. . . . Acts 28:15, where the Christians from Rome walk south along the Appian Way to meet Paul and his company (eis apantēsin hēmin) and escort them on the remainder of their journey to Rome (pp 102–103).

Jesus’ Kingly Appearance

What did Jesus look like? We have no portrait of his likeness. We have no bust showing his facial features.1

What we know is that Jesus was born in a manger—that it was as a baby he came into our world. Though we don’t know much about his childhood, we can read about him as a twelve-year-old in the Temple (Luke   2:41-52), providing amazement to the teachers there (Luke 2:47). But, again, we don’t know what he looked like: his facial features, build, etc.

Yet we can state with some confidence what Jesus didn’t look like. Almost certainly, he resembled nothing like some images of Him, portrayed as a fair-skinned, fair-featured European. On the contrary, Jesus had Middle Eastern Jewish ancestry. Accordingly, he was likely olive-skinned with dark or brown hair, in keeping with others hailing from the Judean area. But as regards any specific physical characteristics, the New Testament (NT) is silent.

We might be able to infer that Jesus was an average looking man by analyzing some NT scenes. For example, Judas Iscariot pointed Jesus out to the soldiers marshalled to arrest him (Matt 26:47-49; Mark 14:43-45; Luke 22:47-49).2 This might suggest Jesus had no special physical qualities to make him stand out amongst the others. But, then again, it was dark, and the light from the torches may have distorted the faces of Jesus and the disciples such that an insider like Judas could more easily identify him. Or, it could be that at least some in the group were in the dark as to what Jesus looked like in the first place.

This Jesus a King?

Perhaps more compelling, Pilate showed apparent surprise upon meeting Jesus. Was he expecting someone more kingly, more ‘regal’ looking? All four Gospels are unanimous in how they record Pilate’s question, which can be phrased either “You are the king of the Jews?” or “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33). By the phraseology (syntax) of the Greek, emphasis seems to be on “you” here.3 But there is no specific wording in the context with which to find a substantive answer as to what exactly provoked Pilate’s response.

However, viewing the description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 may provide a glimpse. Of Isaiah 53:2 J. Alec Motyer observes and opines:

[H]e looked unimpressive (no beauty . . . to attract). To such an extent was he but a man among men that the ordinary tests of beauty (‘looks’), majesty (‘unimpressiveness’) and appearance could be applied—with negative results.4

From this we might conclude that the earthly Jesus was an average looking man. No striking features. But it is possible the physical description here strictly relates to Jesus’ battered body hanging on the cross.5 Yet, even if Isaiah 53 is specifically about the Atonement, the description in verse 2 cannot be ruled out as simultaneously providing a description of the earthly Jesus in a general sense.  Whichever the case, this passage, on its face, cannot be used to definitively determine Jesus’ physical features.

Motyer’s statement above may prompt another possible avenue for inquiry. If we consider the example of Saul’s selection as king, we may find a more solid basis upon which to accept Isaiah 53:2 as providing a description of the earthly Jesus. This, in turn, may provide some substantiation for understanding Pilate’s surprise as pertaining to Jesus’ physical characteristics.

To be more specific, recall that one of the apparent reasons Saul was selected king was because he was tall and handsome (1 Sam 9:2; 10:1,23-24). In other words, the Jews seemed to have selected Saul, at least partly, because he ‘looked like’ a king, in their eyes. In comparison, using the same criteria, the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah did not ‘look like’ a king. Thus, if Isaiah 53:2 describes Jesus, Pilate may have been bewildered upon seeing him, for he may have been expecting someone more ‘regal’ in appearance.

A basis for such thought finds itself in the pseudo-science of physiognomy, as detailed in the work of Mikeal C. Parsons.6 This term reflects the idea in the idiom ‘judging a book by its cover’. To some even the converse is true: judging a cover by its book. In this latter view, by knowing a person’s character, one can determine corresponding physical characteristics even before first sight.

Returning again to Motyer’s statement, observe his final words, “with negative results.”  It appears the author here understands some sort of physiognomic connection.

Parsons notes the presence—and the possible presence7—of the practice of physiognomy in the Old Testament (OT), using the selection of King Saul as but one example. 8 Extra-biblical Jewish texts from this time period evidence this same outward/inward connection.9 All this could point to the lack of physical descriptions of Jesus in the NT—if indeed he was an average man in terms of earthly physical characteristics, such as the description in Isaiah 53:2.

In other words, the Gospel writers’ silence on this issue may be quite purposeful. Knowing the contemporary tendency towards judging outward characteristics as the bases for determining inner qualities, the writers may have been dissuaded from describing Jesus’ physical form in any way. They may have been concerned that readers might make a caricature of him.

A stronger connection of this practice of physiognomy rears its ugly head in contemporary Hellenistic (Greek) culture.10 It “permeated the Greco-Roman thought world.”11 This thought may have emanated from the prominent anthropological and philosophical notions centering on a separate soul and body:

[S]oul and body react on each other; when the character of the soul changes, it changes also the body, and conversely, when the form of the body changes, it changes the character of the soul.12

The Hellenistic version of physiognomy encompassed a wide range of criteria, differing a bit according to the eye of the beholder. These include color of hair, eyes and skin; shape and size of forehead, nose, ears, cheeks, hands, etc.; size of head; sizes of features relative to others; asymmetry/symmetry; size of physique generally; as well as gait and other movements.13

An example of a negative imagining of Jesus’ physical features based on this pseudo-science is found in Cook’s The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism.14 In this work Celsus described Jesus as “small and ugly and ignoble”.15 Celsus apparently arrives at his conclusions on Jesus’ physical features based on distorted understandings of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection, which thereby informed Celsus’ view of Jesus’ morality.16 Since the crucifixion was reserved for criminals, Jesus’ death ‘confirmed’ his supposed “base origins and unworthy character”.17 In other words, a person of such ‘lowly’ character—according to Celsus’ misconstruals—surely was correspondingly “small and ugly”.18

Celsus sarcastically critiques Jesus in his mock-questioning of an imagined Jesus: Upon learning of the child king Jesus, Herod slaughtered innocent children (Matthew 2:3-16),

“lest you should reign instead of him after you were grown. Why then, when you were grown did you not reign? But you, ‘child of God’, ignobly beg in this manner [cf. Matt 10:9-11], poking about in fear and wandering up and down in ruin.”19

Celsus’ apparent awareness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus carrying neither food nor money20 likely contributed to his scathing judgment as “ignoble”.21 In accordance with such a view,

‘Evangelical poverty’ was unimpressive to Celsus. The title ‘king’ for such an impoverished individual is ridiculous to Celsus. Jesus never became a ‘king’ in the sense of the word that Celsus takes for granted.22

Considering all the above, isn’t it possible, perhaps even probable, the silence in the NT regarding Jesus’ earthly physical form is, in fact, by design? And could this account for why there are no direct NT quotations of the physical features portion of Isaiah 53:2?

Appropriating Jesus’ words in John 8:15, “You judge according to the flesh” (cf. 7:24).

Yes, Jesus is King!

Some use Psalm 45:2 to support the idea of a handsome Jesus. But this is probably best understood—if applicable to Jesus at all—as reflective of the post-earthly Jesus, his glorified form.23 And while the NT is silent regarding Jesus’ physical features during his earthly ministry, a few NT texts feature descriptions of a post-glorified Jesus.

We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory in the Transfiguration scene (Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). But John the Revelator describes Jesus in his post-earthly glory. In the first chapter of Revelation, John witnesses:

13 someone like a son of man, dressed in a foot-length robe and girded with a golden wrap around his chest, 14 his head and hair white like wool—white as snow—and his eyes like flames of fire, 15 his feet similar to fine bronze polished in a furnace, and his voice as vibrant as voluminous waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth a sharp double-edged sword proceeds. His face shines like the sun in its full force.

What a description!

With the words “like a son of man” (homoios huios anthrōpou), John evokes the human-like figure in Daniel 7:13 (hōs huios anthrōpou).24 To explain, “son of man” is a rendering of the Hebrew idiom ben Adam, which translates as son of Adam, and is understood to mean human.25 Thus, “son of man” also means human. Comparatively, the particularized the Son of Man, used by Jesus in self-reference throughout the Gospels, refers solely to him. Accordingly, without the attached to “son of man” in both Rev 1:13 and Daniel 7:13,26 this conveys that the figure coming on the clouds (Dan 7:13; Rev 1:7) is human-like in appearance—though, of course this figure is King Jesus at the Second Coming, the parousia. In other words, in Rev 1:13 John is not using the Son of Man, because this term represents Jesus in his earthly ministry. Therefore, the context here (and Dan 7:13) is best understood as referring to King Jesus in his suprahuman, glorified form—like a human.

John provides another magnificent description of King Jesus in Revelation 19:

11 Then I saw heaven standing open, and behold! A white horse! The one riding it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like flames of fire, and on his head are many diadems. A name has been written upon him, which no one knows except him. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and he has named himself THE WORD OF GOD. 14 The armies in heaven follow him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. 15 Out of his mouth proceeds a sharp sword with which he may strike the nations/people. He will shepherd them with an iron staff. And he tramples the winepress of the furious wrath of Almighty God. 16 And upon this robe, where it rests on his thigh, a name is inscribed: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

To use a term that has been diluted in popular culture due to persistent misuse, but here meant in all its original splendor: AWESOME! The verbiage appears to be figurative to some degree, yet we can see points of contact with 2Thessalonians 2:8:

And then the lawless one will be revealed—whom the Lord Jesus will cast away with the breath of His mouth and extinguish by the radiance of his coming/arrival (parousia).

The “breath of his mouth” seems to be a rephrasing of both Rev 1:16 and Rev 19:15 (cf. Isaiah 11:4). The “radiance of his coming” is similar to the final portion of 1:16, though it is implied in the whole context of 19:11-16.27

Come soon King Jesus!

_________________________

1 For possible reasons why, see the section titled Use of ΙΧΘΥΣ in early Christianity in Fishers of Persons article.
2 John’s Gospel portrays this scene a bit differently (John 18:3-5).
3 The Gospels are uniform here, to include word order: Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, Su ei ho basileus tōn Ioudaiōn, You are the king of the Jews? This would be the word-for-word rendering, and the one I prefer here. Since Greek finite verbs encode person and number, a pronoun is not necessary unless the subject is unclear in the context. In this case the referent is obvious: the 2nd person singular encoded in the present tense-form “are” (εἰ̑, ei) can only refer to Jesus. Thus, the presence of the Greek pronoun “you” (σὺ, su) here is unnecessary, for the question can just as easily stand without it: Εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων (You are the king of the Jews?). The reading of the text per all four Gospels could even possibly be rendered: You? You are king of the Jews? (see Bernard and Evans just below). This would be in keeping with the context. For these reasons, I deem the use here emphatic.

Though not the consensus, this view of su as emphatic is far from rare. Cf. Charles L. Quarles, Matthew, EGGNT, Andreas J. Köstenberger & Robert W. Yarbrough, gen. eds. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p 333: Σύ is emphatic and may imply a mocking tone . . .; Joel Marcus, Mark 8—16, The Yale Anchor Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009), p 1033: . . . the sarcastic tone of Pilate’s initial question . . . [is] because the Jewish authorities have reported his royal pretensions and/or reputation…however, such pretensions seem outlandish, since . . . Jesus’ bound condition is the opposite of the unfettered power associated with kingship; Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27—16:20, Word Biblical Commentary [WBC] (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), p 478: The emphatic pronoun carries with it a touch of mockery, perhaps suggesting Pilate had anticipated meeting someone more impressive (i.e., “You? You must be kidding!”); B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, Westcott’s Commentaries on the Gospel of John, Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Epistles of John; Accordance electronic ed. version 2.8 (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2006), para 5147: The form of the sentence . . . suggests a feeling of surprise in the questioner: “Art thou, poor, and bound, and wearied, the King of whom men have spoken?”; J.H. Bernard, The Gospel According to St. John, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary; ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles A. Briggs; Accordance electronic ed. version 2.8 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), para 15345: “Thou! (σύ is emphatic) art Thou the King of the Jews?” Evidently Pilate did not believe that Jesus was a revolutionary leader . . . There was nothing in His appearance or His demeanor to make such a charge plausible.; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Yale Bible; (New Haven: Yale UP, 1974), p 2.851: In the question Pilate asks, it is possible the ‘you’ is emphatic . . . expressing incredulity. Pilate . . . may have been amazed at the mien of Jesus who has been accused of claiming the title.; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), p 768: “Thou” is emphatic. “Art thou the King of the Jews?”; Murray J. Harris, John, EGGNT (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), p 305:If Pilate’s question is formal, σύ will be without emphasis…but if he is being sarcastic, σύ will have the sense, “Are you, of all people, the king of the Jews?”

Some commentators supporting no emphasis tend to see a direct parallel between Pilate’s question (Su ei . . . ) and Jesus’ response (Su legeis . . . ), therefore construing that if emphasis (“You!”) is understood with Pilate, then Jesus was similarly snarky in return, which is then deemed untenable; however, as Lidija Novakovic remarks (John 11—21: A Handbook on the Greek Text, BHGNT [Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2020]) regarding Jesus’ response: σὺ [su] is contrastive, distinguishing Pilate from others . . . (p 239).  (Novakovic is non-committal regarding su in John 18:33 [p 238], though.) In all those supporting emphasis there are slight variations as to the reasoning, but most agree Pilate’s surprise relates to fathoming Jesus as king. There is the possibility that Pilate was expecting—at least in part—an individual with more striking physical features, such as being taller in height, handsomer, etc., which then elicited his surprise. See below.
4 J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p 377.
5 That is, the description here could provide a graphic description of the ‘slain Lamb’ of Revelation 5:6 (cf. John 1:29) instead of the earthly Jesus in his usual appearance. See, e.g., G. K. Beale & Sean M. McDonough, “Revelation” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007): The Isa. 53 background especially highlights the atoning aspect of the lamb’s sacrificial death and also applies the metaphor’s “root” (cf. Rev. 5:5) and “lamb” to the sacrificial victim. In fact, “root” also occurs in Isa. 11:1, 10 (alluded to in Rev. 5:5), which may have inspired attraction to the same metaphor in 53:2 (p 1101). Cf. Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew” in Beale & Carson, who describes, the servant’s disfigured appearance (p 31).
6 Mikeal C. Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006 / Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2011). The Baylor appears to be a straight reissue of the Baker. All references below will refer to the original Baker issue. (See my review of this work here.) Parsons’ main thesis is that Luke/Acts illustrates the reversal of physiognomic thought as “Luke presumes physiognomic principles only to overturn them by story’s end” (p 15).
7 Here Parsons references Lev 21 and its requirements for both sacrifice and priest (p 40), noting how some construe the lack of corresponding moral requirements to go with the physical in Lev 21:16-18 as implying “a connection between the outward and the inward” (p 41).
8 Parsons, pp 39-40. The author also uses King David (1 Sam 16:12) and Absalom (2 Sam 14:25) as examples (p 40).
9 Parsons, pp 42-45.
10 Parsons, pp 17-37.
11 Parsons, p 17.
12 Parsons, p 14. I note that this is not foreign to modern culture, as evidenced, e.g., in the band Talking Heads’ track “Seen and Not Seen” (from the 1980 Remain in Light), in which the narrator wishes to change his facial features by consciously adapting his thoughts, assuming others shared this same ability.
13 Parsons, 18-37.
14 John Granger Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).
15 Cook, p 35.
16 I draw these inferences from the way Cook frames some of his statements (p 35, 48), but particularly his quote of Celsus—which follows in the main text above—as viewed through the lens of the pervasive influence of physiognomy.
17 Eugene V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician: Celsus and Origen on Jesus (Chico, CA: Publishers Press, 1982), p 122, as cited in Cook, p 48.
18 See the corresponding verbiage in the main text of note 15, and see note 16 and its corresponding text.
19 Cook, p 35. Though Cook does not place child of God in quotes, I understand Celsus’ use here as sarcasm, since it is obvious he deemed Jesus unworthy to be a son of god or a king; and, therefore, my quotes are to indicate this cynicism. See also the comments relating to Origen’s Against Celsus in Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli’s Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History: Volume One (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005): Celsus . . . criticized the idea of a descent (future for Jews, past for Christians) of a Son of God to earth, for this contradicts the very nature of God by attributing a change to him (p 291). Given such an a priori view (mistaken as it is), Celsus clearly does not grant ‘Son of God’ status to Jesus.
20 Cook, p 35.
21 This is my extrapolation of Cook (p 35) here given his earlier quote of Celsus’ “ . . . and ignoble” (see content referenced at note 15 above).
22 Cook, p 35.
23 Psalm 45:2 is variously translated in the English versions; however, the first part of the verse, which includes “handsome” in some versions, is not quoted or alluded to in the NT—as far as I’ve determined. The latter part of the verse (with “grace” or “gracious”) may be alluded to in Luke 4:22, though. Thus, I infer the possibility of this pertaining to Jesus only insofar as the citing/allusion to other verses in Psalm 45 (6-7) in the context of Hebrews 1:8-9 (See George H. Guthrie, “Hebrews” in Beale & Carson, pp 937, 939). And even if it does apply to Jesus, then it must be post-resurrection, as per the Hebrews context (1:3ff).
24 The words homoios and hōs are synonymous; in fact John uses the latter quite a bit in vv 13-16. John also uses homoios huios anthrōpou in Rev 14:14.
25 For more explanation on this, see ‘Son of Man’ in the LXX here.
26 In other words, these lack both Greek articles—one before huios (“son”) and one before anthrōpou (“man”), in comparison with the other occurrences in the NT where Jesus self-references as the Son of [the] Man during his earthly ministry. Relatedly, I have argued extensively that this same non-particularized huios anthrōpou in John 5:27 is meant to indicate “son of man”, aka “human” in that context in order to tie it to Daniel 7:13 and Rev 1:13; 14:14: see The Son of God Given Authority to Judge Because He is ‘Human’: A Study in John 5:27, pt 4 and pt 5.
27 And the latter part of 19:16 is parallel to 14:14, and 19:11-16 has other points of contact with 14:14-20.

Providing Christian Witness

Some may think battle lines have only recently been drawn. But the battle began long ago. Paul provided instructions on how to wage this war in his letter to the saints in Ephesus, the Ephesians. Of course, his instructions are for the entire Church age.

In the face of threatening opposition, we don’t wield a sword to slice off Malchus’ ear (John 18:10; Matt 26:51). Jesus soundly rebuked Peter for doing so (John 18:11; Matt 26:52). This foolish act prompted Jesus to heal the man’s ear in response (Luke 22:51). We are to clutch a very different kind of ‘sword’.

The way we are to do battle is difficult, yet relatively easy. We stand. And pray. We put on the armor of God and stand firm (Eph 6:13). For our battle is not against earthly flesh and blood, it is against dark spiritual forces (Eph 6:12).

6:14 Therefore, stand: your waist belted in truth, adorned with the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and your feet equipped for the gospel of peace 16 —in everything taking up the shield of faith, with which you will be able to extinguish all the evil one’s flaming arrows. 17 And grasp the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. 18 With every prayer and request, pray in the Spirit at all times, in this keeping alert, in all perseverance and petition for all the saints.

We clothe ourselves in Divine armor (Eph 6:11). Then we stand for truth and righteousness, ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. We do this while holding onto our faith in Christ in order to ward off the devil’s attacks. We latch onto our salvation and the Word of God. And we persevere in prayer for all the saints.

We stand. We pray. These are the defensive and offensive weapons we must use in this spiritual warfare. And they are all we need.

The ‘easy’ part is doing this through the Spirit (consider Moses parting the Red Sea). The hard part is submitting to the Spirit and staying submitted.

In this we provide testimony for Christ. And this testimony may result in earthly martyrdom for some. It certainly has over the past two millennia.

In fact, there is one Greek word for testimony, witness, and martyr. It is martyria (also martyrion), and closely related is martys (or martyros). The first noun refers to the testimony provided, the second to the person providing the testimony. Also, there are associated verb forms (martyreō, martyromai). Both a noun form and a verb are used in John 1:7:

This man [John the Baptizer] came as a witness (martyria), to testify (martyreō) about the Light

In Acts 22:20, Paul identifies Stephen posthumously as Jesus’ witness, by using the other noun form martys (cf. Rev 2:13; 17:6). He was recounting the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60):

And when the blood of Stephen your witness (martys) was being shed, I myself was standing there, even approving of his death, guarding the coats of those who were executing him.

Though some English versions translate the Greek martys here as martyr, this may be a bit anachronistic; that is, it may have been a bit later that the term was understood as martyr in the sense we know it today. Nonetheless, Stephen’s witness (Acts 6:8—7:60) lives on in Scripture. It was his testimony (Acts 6:8—7:53) that led to him being the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-60). His martyrdom surely provided more notoriety for his witness. And observe what Stephen himself witnessed during his martyrdom: He saw “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). How glorious!

Are you prepared to be such a witness, such a martyr (martys), if necessary?

Can I get a witness?

Being Blessed

Who doesn’t want to be blessed, be happy? Obviously that’s rhetorical. I’m sure you would like a blessing bestowed upon you—to be blessed, to be happy. Let’s be blessed!

The Greek word for “blessed” or “happy” is μακάριος, makários. The second syllable receives the accent, so we pronounce it ma-kA-rē-os. It even sounds happy!

Scripture provides direction on how to be blessed. This is predicated upon belief, of course. Blessed are those who believe despite not being direct eyewitnesses to Jesus’ post-resurrection body (John 20:24-29).

The word is first found in the New Testament in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes, beginning in Matthew 5:3. Jesus closes the section by pointing to our future heavenly reward (5:12):

5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . 11 Blessed are you when they insult you, persecute you, and speak all kinds of evil against you falsely because of Me. 12 Rejoice! Be overjoyed even, because great is your reward in heaven! For in this same way they persecuted the Prophets who were before you.1

The way up is down.2 The last will be first.

The word also occurs in James 1:12:

1:12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for in becoming approved he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.

The first part of this verse summarizes James 1:2-4. By trials we are purified, proven to be true.3 Our relationship with God has contingency: We must persevere. And we will receive trials. Especially the stubborn, like me. In 5:11 James uses the verbal form of this word (makarízō) in a context about the blessedness of Job due to his perseverance in suffering. His example provides hope for the rest of us:

5:11 See how blessed are those who persevere! You have heard of Job’s perseverance and you have seen his ending on account of the Lord—because the Lord is full of compassion and tender mercy.

But are we fit for the test? More pointedly, am I?

This theme of blessedness both opens and closes the book of Revelation. This last book in all Scripture might be better known as God’s revelation given to Jesus Christ, which was subsequently delivered to His servant John through an angel.4 God gave it to Jesus, who then gave it to an angel, who subsequently gave it to John. It is God’s revelation specifically intended for us!  Here are the first 3 verses:

1:1 [This is] the apocalypse/revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must come soon. He delivered it through His angel to His servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ in all he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep the things written in it, for the time is near.5

So the book opens with a promised blessing to the one reading it. This extends to those heeding the revelation of God and Jesus. You haven’t yet ventured into a full reading of Revelation? Take heed: “the time is near.” Just before the final usage of “blessed”, and just after describing the wondrous Garden with its River of Life (see Looking Past the Future), Jesus reprises and synopsizes the introduction (22:7):

22:7 See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of this prophecy in this scroll.

The final use of “blessed” comes just a few verses from the very end. Jesus’ words here provide a nice summary of what is expected of our life here to gain the life hereafter—life in the Garden city containing the River of Life:

22:14 Blessed are those who wash their garments, so that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and may enter through the gates to the city.

To be blessed, we must read and keep God’s word. Be blessed!

_____________________

1 My translation, as is all here. I take the καί (kai) in v 12 as ascensive (“even”), given that the second imperatival verb is more intensive lexically than the first (chairō, “rejoice” > agalliaō, “be exceedingly joyful”). Moreover, “be overjoyed” is in the middle voice (agalliasthe), and in this context I interpret this combination as akin to being reflexive in some sense (“be yourselves overjoyed”). That is, the verb’s root meaning lends itself to intransitivity (both verbs do), depending on context, and in the context here it’s surely intransitive. When this intransitivity is coupled with the middle voice I view it as indicating reflexivity (self-inducing an emotional state?).  See Carl W. Conrad, “New Observations on Voice in the Ancient Greek Verb. November 19, 2002”, ([unpublished], accessed 12/31/2020), which seems to support my position here regarding this verb in its middle voice, “It appears the verb is intransitive in every instance [in the NT], though one may readily understand a middle sense: ‘feel joy’” (p 15). Conrad compiled helpful lists of functions for the middle (pp 9-10), of which category 10 “Emotion” (p 10) fits here (this list culled from Suzanne Kemmer), or the more specific “Class 3: Self-Involvement: B. Emotional States” (Neva Miller’s own designation) could work. Maybe it isn’t necessary to put too fine a point on all this, but the categories help to fully consider lexis and voice within the overall syntactical structure, in order to arrive at a better understanding of the text/context, I think. I certainly need to more fully consider Conrad’s work.

   Additionally, Conrad suggests—and I think his points are well-reasoned—that the active voice be understood as the “basic” (p 11) or default voice, and any other (he prefers “subject-focused” for what are variously called middles, passives, or middle/passives) be considered a marked usage comparatively (pp 7-9). Accepting this stance would appear to solidify my contention that καί should be understood as ascensive in this context.

2 I like the way Charles H. Talbert (Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5—7 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004]) summarizes the Beatitudes: “The Content of the Beatitudes is twofold: promises of eschatological blessings and a portrait of the recipients of these blessings. The first four Beatitudes deal with the vertical relationship; the final four plus one focus on horizontal relationships” (p 54). I really need to read this book cover-to-cover instead of merely skimming sections….

3 Or not!

4 The inscription preceding the first verse in the manuscript tradition simply reads Apocalypsis Iōannou, which translates as “Apocalypse of John” or “John’s Apocalypse”. But this merely identifies the author of the written work, as opposed to its actual genesis, which is spelled out in the first verse. In any event, our own tradition that simply truncates this wonderful work to the title Revelation does it a terrible disservice! The work provides its own self-inscription via the contents of what we label verses 1 and 2.

5 The word translated “read” in verse 3 is more accurately “reads aloud”. Understood in this way, one person would be reading the manuscript in front of an audience. The orator would certainly be blessed, and those hearing and obeying it would likewise be blessed.

Psalm of the Day



Psalm 130 (129 LXX/Septuagint)


De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuæ intendentes in vocem deprecationis meæ.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?
Quia apud te propitiatio est; et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus: Speravit anima mea in Domino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem, speret Israël in Domino.
Quia apud Dominum misericordia, et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
Et ipse redimet Israël ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.


Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive as I voice my pleadings.
If Thou, O Lord, kept record of iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; for that you be revered, Lord.
In my innermost being I long for His word; my very being yearns for the Lord.
As a night watchman anticipates morning, let Israel hope in the Lord.
But in the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption,
And He will deliver Israel from all iniquities.

Today an Eternal Present was Unveiled in the City of David

Merry Christmas!

10 . . . The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen closely, for I proclaim to you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 Today your Savior—Who is Christ the Lord—was born in the city of David.”1

This is the day we celebrate the birth2 of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,3 Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.4

Joy to the world! / The Lord is come! / Let earth receive her King. / Let every heart prepare Him room / and heaven and nature sing.

A bit over two millennia ago, the eternal Word5 became the eternal-temporal Theanthrōpos,6 the God-man.7 Deity came in humility, clothed in humanity, born in Bethlehem. God the Father loved the world so much that He provided His one, unique Son8 as a sacrifice for us all, by ‘lifting Him up’ on the cross,9 so that everyone who believes in Him would not  perish, but would gain eternal life,10 adopted as God’s children.11 This entrance into eternality begins the very moment of initial belief12 and will remain for the overcomers—those enduring until the end.13

This day we should, in reverential awe, commemorate this glorious, eternally present,14 eternal gift.15 We should remember this selfless, sacrificial gift16 every day—but especially today. Those temporal gifts we give and receive—largely in celebrations overshadowing the true meaning of this season, this day—those temporal gifts we exchange, some by compulsion, will perish. But not this gift. This gift, available to all, has already been given—at such cost!17 The Giver of this gift is Himself the Gift,18 Who seemingly perished forevermore after being crucified.19 Yet He rose again!20 And He lives yet still.21

But this gift is more of an exchange—though a very one-sided one at that. To receive the gift of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement22—in which He has already paid the due penalty for all mankind’s sins past, present, and future23—one must repent,24 turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior,25 and then ‘take up one’s cross daily’.26 This means obeying Jesus’ commandments27 and following His path, to the point of physical death, if necessary.28 However, even if following Christ directly results in temporal death (which is an inevitable eventuality whether following Him or not) one receives the much more valuable eternal life. Yet, even more, as part of this exchange one receives God’s indwelling Spirit29—the Holy Spirit, the paraklētos,30 the Spirit of Truth31—in Whom one possesses both the navigational compass and the strength to endure His pathway.

Yet Jesus’ requirements are not burdensome.32 When the Christ-follower inevitably sins33—and one easily does so when living by one’s own strength rather than by and in the Spirit34—He is quick to forgive the penitent.35

To those who believe in and follow the Messiah, His Resurrection guarantees this eternal present;36 but, it was the conception37 and subsequent birth38 of the Eternal-temporal39 providing the necessary precursor. As Christians, as Christ-followers, let us remember this day for the momentous and joyous occasion it was and is: the arrival of the Gospel in the Gift wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger.40 To those with opened eyes He was unveiled.41 To the blind He remained veiled, but to those blind subsequently receiving sight He was revealed.42

Let us not be side-tracked by the temporality of contemporary glitz and glamour. Let us not take this day for granted. Let us take it to heart. Let us take its inherent message to the outer extremities.43 Let us be God’s instruments through which this Gift is unveiled, blind eyes opened.

The world awaits.44

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(If you think you might be experiencing a case of déjà vu, you are not exactly wrong. This is a lightly revised and slightly expanded version of an article I posted on Christmas day last year.)

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1 Luke 2:10-11, my translation.
2 It is very unlikely, though, that December 25 is the actual day Jesus was born. See When was Jesus Born?
3 Luke 2:10-11; Matthew 1:25; cf. Micah 5:2.
4 John 1:41; 4:25.
5 John 1:1.
6 From Theos = God, anthrōpos = man.
7 John 1:14.
8 John 1:14; 3:16.
9 John 3:14 (cf. Numbers 21:8-9); John 12:32-33.
10 John 3:16-17; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4; 1John 4:9-10.
11 John 1:12.
12 John 5:24-25.
13 Matthew 24:13; Revelation 2:7, 10-11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 10-12, 19-21; 14:12.
14 John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3.
15 Revelation 13:8; cf. Revelation 17:8. There is ambiguity in the syntax of the Greek in 13:8. Is it that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (KJV, NIV, e.g.), or is it that certain names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (ESV, NASB, e.g.)? [This implies there are yet others who were written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (cf. Rev 3:5).] One could harmonize this with the words whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world from 17:8 to resolve this, yet it seems difficult to have a book of life without the Life Giver’s substitutionary atonement (Hebrews 2:17) having been provided first. So maybe both are true? Resolution is not even found in John the Baptizer’s words in John 1:29 regarding the “Lamb of God” (cf. Rev 5:6-14), for the verb airōn, takes away, is a present active participle, which grammatically indicates durative action (imperfective aspect), but the temporal reference is unclear. Is it yet-future from the Baptizer’s words (in then-current context looking forward to the cross), or is John stating that it is already in effect? Relatedly, this verb airō can connote being taken ‘up’ as well as taken away, which can provide a bit of—likely intended—double entendre, polysemy. In other words, sins are taken up/away as He is taken up/away. This double meaning likely applies—unknowingly by the speakers and in ironical fashion with the benefit of hindsight—in John 19:15 when “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) responded to Pilate’s statement “Here is your king!” with aron aron, staurōson auton, “Take up/away, take up/away; crucify him!” Their command resulted in Him being glorified (John 12:23; 13:31-32; 17:1) and thereby receiving the name above every name (Philippians 2:9-11; cf. What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion).
16 Philippians 2:5-8.
17 Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15. Each and every one of us—at and beyond the age of accountability, at the least—has played his/her part in lifting Him up on that cross.
18 John 11:25; 14:6.
19 Matthew 27:48-50; Mark 15:36-37; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-30.
20 Matthew 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-8[20]; Luke 24:1-49; John 2:19-22; 10:17-18; 20:1-31; 1Corinthians 15:1-4.
21 Revelation 1:18.
22 Hebrews 2:14-18.
23 Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 9:11-15, 26-28; 10:12, 19-24.
24 Matthew 4:17; Luke 3:8-14; Acts 2:38; 3:19; Romans 2:4.
25 But this cannot be done in one’s own strength; see the words of Jesus in John 6:44: No one is able to come to Me unless the Father, the One Who sent Me, draws him[/her].
26 Matthew 10:38-39; 16:24-26; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23-24; 14:27; John 12:25-26.
27 Matthew 4:17; 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; John 8:31-32; 13:34/15:12; 15:10; James 2:8-11; 1John 5:3.
28 Matthew 16:24-26. See What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”?
29 John 3:3-8; 14:17; Romans 8:15-17; 1Corinthians 2:12; 3:16; 6:19; 2Corinthians 6:16.
30 John 14:15-16:15; Acts 1:8; 2:1-39; 1John 4:1-6. See also Who is the Holy Spirit?
31 John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1John 4:6; 5:6.
32 Matthew 11:28-30; 1John 5:3.
33 1John 1:8-10.
34 Galatians 5:16-26; 1John 1:6-8.
35 Hebrews 10:22-23; 1John 1:9-2:2.
36 1Corinthians 15:20-23.
37 Luke 1:34-35.
38 Luke 2:1-7.
39 John 1:1, 14.
40 Luke 2:10-12.
41 Luke 2:8-20.
42 John 9:1-41; 2Corinthians 3:14-18.
43 Matthew 28:19-20.
44 John 3:16-21, 31-36; Romans 8:18-27.

An Eternal Christological Conundrum

Though I don’t recall the source offhand, I remember reading that many pastors, preachers, and expositors are afraid to discuss the Trinity and Christology. They’re concerned about confusing congregations and readers. They’re concerned about misspeaking and, as a consequence, being branded a heretic.

And we’re all the poorer for it. The object of our faith—Jesus Christ, our Savior—gets short shrift. This results in audiences not conceiving the full grandeur of His Person. Some reduce the Divine Savior to the merely human. Conversely, some exalt Christ so highly they Deify His humanity. In this post we will focus on one aspect of the latter.

To this end, first, we’ll provide a brief definition of God, centering on His attributes. God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (all-present, everywhere at once). I think Thomas V. Morris provides the most succinct statement on the interrelationships and interworkings of these three attributes:

Perhaps the best understanding of the attribute of omnipresence is that of its being the property of being present everywhere in virtue of knowledge of [omniscience] and power over [omnipotence] any and every spatially located object [creation].1

Next, we’ll provide a framework for God’s mode of existence as compared to ours.

Time is an aspect of the created order. Yet God is transcendent, existing in the eternal realm, outside time and creation. There is no physicality in the eternal realm.

God, as a spirit Being (John 4:24), is not bound or impacted by the physical or time limits of creation and, thus, has the ability to interact with and within the created order. God lords over creation.2 He transcends time, creation’s necessary constituent.

But what is eternity, the eternal realm? And how does time, with its chronological series of events—the past, the ever-fleeting present, and the future—relate to eternity? Do the two intersect in any way? I have found no better explanation, and no better basis for exploration, than the words of Lewis Sperry Chafer:

…Whatever time may be and whatever its relation to eternity, it must be maintained that no cessation of eternity has occurred or will.  God’s mode of existence remains unchanged.  Time might be thought of as something superimposed upon eternity were it not that there is ground for question whether eternity consists of a succession of events, as is true of time.  The consciousness of God is best conceived as being an all-inclusive comprehension at once, covering all that has been or will be.  The attempt to bring time with its successions into a parallel with eternity is to misconceive the most essential characteristic of eternal things.3

This seems right to me. We cannot think of chronological order in eternity. We cannot impose our temporal thinking of past, present and future onto the eternal realm. We cannot impose temporality upon eternality.

Temporality can be conceived as akin to a number line. We can metaphorically place ourselves at an ever-moving zero for the ever-fleeting present time, while construing events left of zero (negative numbers) as the past, and events to the right (positive numbers) as the future.

Since our finite minds cannot conceive eternality, it would be impossible to construct any sort of analogy with any level of confidence. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s consider it like the symbol for infinity, in the sense of being boundless or endless.

There is no beginning and no ending. Once you are metaphorically on the infinity loop—in the eternal realm—there is no past and no future. You will find no beginning and no end. There is no time, unless you wish to call it the eternal present. But I think even that distorts the reality, since it includes a time element. Perhaps better: once in the eternal realm you simply exist.

God is metaphorically on the infinity loop. God has unbounded eternality. By contrast, all those granted eternal life have bounded eternality. They are bounded at the point of entry. ‘After’ that (it’s difficult to refrain from temporal references!), they enjoy the same unbounded eternality as God.

Using the above framework, we can now discuss the Eternal-temporal: the Divine-human Person of Christ.

Starting with the Definition worked out at the Council of Chalcedon, we affirm—as the totality of Scripture demonstrates—that Jesus was/is fully God and fully human, possessing both a Divine nature and a human nature. This doctrine logically entails one important aspect: From our temporal perspective, Christ’s humanity began at a point in time (Virginal Conception).

On the other hand, His Deity is eternal, with no beginning and no end—no temporality. Accordingly, His Divine nature has unbounded eternality.

To keep things as simple as possible, we’ll borrow John the Gospel writer’s terminology. The Word, the Logos, was with God in the beginning, and the Word was God; the Word existed as God (John 1:1-2). The Word was the agent of all creation, for all things came to be—all things came into existence—through the Word (John 1:3). Then the eternal Word became the Eternal-temporal Word-made-flesh (John 1:14), i.e., Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

Putting this in temporal perspective, prior to year zero—the dividing line between BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini = “in the year of our Lord”)—the Word existed with no flesh. At year zero the Word acquired human flesh, instantaneously culminating in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Divine-human, the God-man. This begins the Incarnation (John 1:14). At that point the Divine Word became forever hypostatically united with human flesh.

Taking the previous paragraph and simplifying it, we could illustrate from a temporal perspective:

The Word w/out flesh > the Word w/flesh

Strictly speaking, the Word w/out flesh is not Jesus; Jesus is the Word w/flesh. That is, in the verbiage depicted in John 1:1-3 the Word could not have had flesh, for this describes pre-creation (John 1:1-2), followed by the creation event (John 1:3). At this point, clearly, the Word had no flesh and, thus, cannot rightly be called Jesus. We can certainly state, “Jesus had a pre-incarnate existence as the Word.” That is, there is continuity in the Person.

With this understanding, we would have to agree that Jesus Christ, aka the Word with flesh, has bounded eternality—bound at the moment of the Virginal Conception. To deny this is to unduly exalt Jesus to the point that He is super-human—in violation of Chalcedon. Correspondingly, we would have to affirm that the Word w/out flesh has unbounded eternality, in keeping with the “fully God” portion of Chalcedon.

Some might object that such strong distinctions illustrate the heresy of Nestorianism. But not necessarily. We can affirm that the Word with flesh, aka Jesus, has unbounded eternality in virtue of His Divine nature—which has existed and will continue to exist eternally, of course. Simultaneously, we can affirm that the Word with flesh, aka Jesus, has bounded eternality in virtue of His human nature—bound at the point of the Virginal Conception.

Yet, from an eternal perspective, it could be argued that the Word has always existed with flesh (cf. Revelation 13:8; 17:8). This would fully take into account Chafer’s statement, “The consciousness of God is best conceived as being an all-inclusive comprehension at once, covering all that has been or will be.” By extension, we might think that every true Christian has always been seated in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6). But might that call into question free will (cf. Revelation 3:5)? I suggest we not try to sit on God’s Throne, that we not attempt to ponder from an eternal perspective. Let’s stick with the temporal.

With all the foregoing in mind, we can do proper justice to the truth of Colossians 1:16-17 (cf. Hebrews 1:2):

16 …and all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 And He Himself exists before all, and in/by Him all things hold together.4

John the Gospel writer apparently drew from Paul’s words here. All things were created through Him (the Word without flesh). That is, the Word is the Agent of creation (John 1:3). And all things were created for Him (the Word with flesh). That is, all things were created for the God-man, Jesus Christ. The first clause of verse 17 can be translated and interpreted a few different ways. It could be translated: He is before all. Some interpretations include: (a) the Word exists before all created order; (b) Christ, in his Divine nature, exists before all created order; (c) the Word, as God, is preeminent; (d) Christ, as the God-man, is preeminent. The text may well be purposefully ambiguous such that there is intended polysemy, inviting more than one interpretation.

But what about the final clause? Prior to the Incarnation it was simple enough: the Word without flesh was holding all things together. However, can the God-man hold all things together while walking the earth, limited in physical presence? To claim Jesus did so via His Divine nature (in abstraction from His human nature) might smack of Nestorianism. How can we resolve this?

With ease. God is omnipresent. We should not imagine God being constrained within/to Jesus’ human body any more than we might think the Holy Spirit is constrained within each believer’s body. Surely, there are not as many ‘Holy Spirits’ as there are Christians! In the same way, Jesus’ Divine nature, being omnipresent, can be in hypostatic union in the Person of Christ yet still continually sustain the cosmos.

In other words, we must not construe this passage as conveying that the Divine-human Jesus was holding the cosmos together, as if Jesus’ human body was omnipresent. Now, it was His Divine nature for sure, but the Divine nature was exhibiting the attribute of omnipresence (along with omnipotence and omniscience) in performing this function. This Divine function was not interrupted by the Incarnation.

In conclusion, we do no violence to the Deity of Christ if we affirm that the Word existed without human flesh, that the Word was not “Jesus Christ” prior to the Incarnation. In fact, we would unduly Deify Jesus’ humanity should we claim Jesus existed before creation. In other words, we cannot substitute “Jesus Christ” for “the Word” in John 1:1. This would make nonsense of the Scriptures. But we can claim that Jesus Christ preexisted as the Word in John 1:1. Or that the Word (John 1:1-3) is the preexistence of Jesus Christ.

All in proper—temporal—perspective…

[Related: Probing the Prologue in The Gospel According to John: John 1:1-2 and John 1:3-5]

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1 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1986), p 91.  Brackets added.
2 Though he allows free will.
3 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, [© 1948, 1976 Dallas Theological Seminary] 1993), pp VII.141-42.  Emphasis added.
4 My translation, with assistance from Murray J. Harris, Colossians and Philemon, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), pp 42-43; Constantine R. Campbell, Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013), pp 11-14.

Christmas Came Early!

Who can forget the part in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)? This captures the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This captures the meaning of Christmas.

But, arguably, the story of Christmas comes a bit earlier than that. Before the Virgin Birth was the Virginal Conception. This is found in Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-24.

Yet the implication of Jeremiah 1:5 shows that Christmas came even earlier:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came out of the womb, I sanctified you and appointed you a prophet to the nations.

If God assigned Jeremiah’s role before forming him in the womb, then he surely knew Jesus’ assignment before His miraculous birth! Can we know how early?

We know from John chapter 1 that Jesus predates His earthly existence as “the Word” (Logos).

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… (John 1:14).

The first portion “And the Word became flesh” can be understood as either the Virginal Conception or the Virgin Birth. I think it means the former. Whichever the case, strictly speaking, “the Word” predates Jesus of Nazareth. That is, before John 1:14 “the Word” existed without human flesh. In fact, a careful reading of John 1:1-3 illustrates that “the Word” predates creation, for He was the Agent of all creation:

1 In the beginning the Word existed, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (by nature). 2 He [the Word] existed in the beginning with God. 3 Through Him [the Word] all things came to be…

While God is the Creator (see Rev 4:11, e.g.), “the Word” was the Agent by which all things were created. Thus, when “the Word became flesh” the uncreated Agent of all creation became part of all creation!

Yet we still haven’t answered the question of whether or not we can know how early Jesus’ assignment was. The book of Revelation implicitly provides the answer!

Depending on which Bible version you have (the Greek syntax here can be construed two different ways), the implication of Revelation 13:8 (cf. 17:8) is such that either: {a} names were placed in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world (NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB) or {b} the Lamb (Jesus) was slain before the foundation of the world (KJV, Douay-Rheims, ISV, YLT). In either case, this indicates salvation was worked out before creation.

Thus, Christmas came VERY early!

A Test of Faithfulness and Obedience

Listen to an amazing account of faithfulness and obedience. Though I think I can be bold, I am not so sure I could have followed through on this. In fact, to my shame, I’d have to admit that I doubt I would have. Would you have?

Words accompanying the vlog above:

The secret to a powerful life is simple: love God most. There is no life more powerful than a consecrated, Christ-magnifying, Word-filled life. The choice is ours. What Can God Do with An Ephesian First-Love Surrendered Life? Consider the Praying Man of Morocco. Here’s one I met 40 years ago while in the BEE ministry. I was asked to ride a train to Switzerland from Germany and drive a van carrying 6,000 Bibles into North Africa. The reason was a believer in Morocco was surrendered to God and being used by Him. I won’t know his name until Heaven, but He prayed for God to reach his Muslim people. He contacted Believers in the West. He agreed to be the tool. He prayed for God to bring the Bibles. We delivered them to Him.

The vlogger is going through the book of Revelation. The Ephesian church (church in Ephesus) is referenced by Jesus Himself in Revelation chapter 2 (HCSB):1

1 “Write to the angel [or messenger] of the church in Ephesus:

“The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands says: 2 I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. 3 You also possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My name and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you [other mss2 add quickly] and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. 6 Yet you do have this: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

7 “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in [other mss read in the midst of] God’s paradise.”

In the first verse the “One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands” is a reference to Jesus (cf. Rev 1:12, 16). He is resplendently described in the Apocalypse (Revelation) as compared to the Gospels (Rev 1:13—16).

Sadly, many Christians do not include the book of Revelation in their reading. It is said to be confusing, open to too many interpretations, scary, and the like. Yet it’s the only book in all of Scripture which promises a blessing to those reading it and to those taking its words to heart! See 1:3 and 22:7.

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1 Scripture quotations marked HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.

2 The abbreviation “mss” in the bracketed portions is for “manuscripts”, as in New Testament Greek manuscripts.

Misgendering the Spirit

Language learners should master the concept of grammatical gender. This is especially true for native English speakers. I’ve found many Christians, even some in scholarly circles, who are confused on this issue. As a consequence, the Holy Spirit is sometimes ‘misgendered’.

The problem is birthed from confusion between (and conflation of) grammatical gender and biological sex, as in male and female. From this confusion, faulty ideas arise as to what constitutes personhood.

To state simply: grammatical gender does not necessarily indicate biological sex. Most times there is no correlation whatsoever.

Grammatical Gender en Español

Since Greek has three grammatical genders, it may be helpful to first illustrate from a language with only two. Below are some examples in Spanish, the world’s fourth-most spoken language (after English, Mandarin Chinese, and Hindi).

the cat = el gato
the dog = el perro
the table = la mesa
the bank = el banco
the store = la tienda

Notice how “the” is spelled two different ways in Spanish. The words for “cat”, “dog”, and “bank” have el before them. These words (gato, perro, banco) are masculine in grammatical gender, so the corresponding word for “the” is also masculine (el). Comparatively, the Spanish words for “table” and “store” have la preceding them. These words (mesa, tienda) are feminine in grammatical gender and therefore have la to match.

This use of el in front of grammatically masculine nouns and la in front of grammatically feminine nouns must be maintained. You should never see ‘la gato’ or ‘el mesa’—these are grammatical mismatches, errors.

Now, we would hardly think any table or store is female. Nor would we think any bank is male. And, of course, we would hardly think all cats and all dogs are male.

In Spanish, there is a simple way for designating female cats and female dogs. An extra word is added to el perro and el gato to specify a male:

the female dog = la perra
the female cat = la gata
the male dog = el perro macho
the male cat = el gato macho

The astute student can readily see that the last letter of both perro and gato is changed from “o” to “a” to make it feminine in grammatical gender. This way, the grammatical gender also indicates the female sex of the dog and the cat. But since perro and gato mean “dog” or “cat” generically (without regard to biological sex), adding macho to the end indicates that the dog or the cat is male. In these examples grammatical gender correlates to biological sex.

Below are the final Spanish examples for our purposes:

the Father = el Padre
the Son = el Hijo
the mother = la madre
the spirit = el espíritu
the Holy Spirit = el Espíritu Santo

The only feminine grammatical gender above is found, appropriately, in “mother”. Similarly, both “Father” and “Son” are masculine. However, when referring to God biological sex is not to be understood, of course.

The word for “spirit” is masculine in grammatical gender. But this doesn’t mean that a spirit has biological sex. To specify “the Holy Spirit”, the word Santo follows el Espíritu. And since the Holy Spirit is part of the Triune God, once again, we don’t construe biological sex.

The Three Genders in the Greek

As noted earlier, Greek has three grammatical genders, adding neuter:

the sun = ho hēlios (masculine)
the earth/land = hē gē (feminine)
the water = to hudōr (neuter)

Like Spanish, the Greek word for “the” must match the grammatical gender of its associated noun. In the examples above, “sun” (hēlios) is masculine, “earth/land” (gē) is feminine, and “water” (hudōr) is neuter. So, correspondingly, the words for “the” are masculine (ho), feminine (hē), and neuter (to), respectively. Of course, none of the words in these examples indicate biological sex.

the world/universe = ho kosmos (masculine)
the land/region = hē chōra (feminine)
the lake = hē limnē (feminine)
the open/deep sea = to pelagos (neuter)
the deep sea = ho bythos (masculine)

In viewing the above, the reader may perceive a seeming randomness to the assignment of grammatical gender. The last three all relate to water, yet each one has a different grammatical gender! In fact, the last two are synonymous.

Once again, none of these can be construed as implying biological sex. And none of these are persons in any sense, of course.

the word/speech = ho logos (masculine)
the word/saying = to rhēma (neuter)

Despite what some Word of Faith (Word/Faith) teachers claim, these two words are essentially synonymous when referring to speech.1 And when referring to speech generally, we do not assume biological sex or personhood, of course.

In the case of ho logos the difference comes in the preexistent Jesus Christ, “the Word” (John 1:1—14). Certainly, we recognize the personalization—the ‘Personhood’2—of “the Word” here. However—and this is an important distinction—the masculine grammatical gender of ho logos does not indicate personhood in and of itself. Nor does it indicate biological sex—God is not intrinsically a sexual Being. It is the flesh (human) aspect of Word-become-flesh (Jesus the Christ) that indicates biological sex. Jesus is a biological male in virtue of His human nature, not His Divine nature. In His pre-earthly existence as “the Word” He was not even a biological being.

the Father = ho Patēr
the Son = ho Huios
the mother = hē mētēr
the spirit = to pneuma
the Holy Spirit = to Pneuma (to) Hagios

Not surprisingly, the first three above parallel the Spanish in terms of grammatical gender. The only feminine occurs, appropriately, in “mother”. Similarly, both “Father” and “Son” are masculine. And again, as in Spanish—or any translation of Scripture—when referring to God biological sex is not to be understood.

But when compared to the Spanish word for “S/spirit” grammatical gender differs. In Greek the word (pneuma) is neuter. Consequently, confusion results among many. To some apparently, the neuter grammatical gender necessarily construes a non-being, a thing. And from there it would follow that non-beings are non-persons. But this conflates distorted notions of grammatical gender with biological sex/gender in the English and imposes them upon the Greek.

Christendom, We Have a Problem

Confusion manifests in two ways, with one mistaken notion following the other. Because the word for “Spirit”, pneuma, is neuter in grammatical gender, some interpreters wrongly assume:

(a) this must mean that the Holy Spirit is not a ‘person’, since the Spirit is neither masculine (misconstrued as “male”?) in grammatical gender nor feminine (misconstrued as “female”?);

(b) however, because one section of Scripture (John 14:15—16:15) uses the grammatically masculine paraklētos (“counselor”, “advocate”, “comforter”) to refer to the Spirit, then this makes the Holy Spirit a person.

Now, to be clear, I absolutely affirm that Scripture declares the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit. But this is not due to the masculine grammatical gender of paraklētos. More on this further below.

Generally, the Got Questions site explains Christian concepts adequately (if a bit simplistically at times). But their page for the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit, Is the Holy Spirit a person?, contains the errors identified in this blog post. To unravel, I will analyze one sentence at a time. First the text, from the second paragraph at the preceding hyperlink:

The Bible provides many ways to help us understand that the Holy Spirit is truly a person—that is, He is a personal being, rather than an impersonal thing. First, every pronoun used in reference to the Spirit is “he” not “it.” The original Greek language of the New Testament is explicit in confirming the person of the Holy Spirit. The word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is neuter and would naturally take neuter pronouns to have grammatical agreement. Yet, in many cases, masculine pronouns are found (e.g., John 15:26; 16:13-14). Grammatically, there is no other way to understand the pronouns of the New Testament related to the Holy Spirit—He is referred to as a “He,” as a person.

Error begets error. Beginning with the first sentence:

The Bible provides many ways to help us understand that the Holy Spirit is truly a person—that is, He is a personal being, rather than an impersonal thing.

This is true.

First, every pronoun used in reference to the Spirit is “he” not “it.”

Though this may be true in English translations, this is absolutely untrue in the Greek New Testament. This will be clarified as we go.

The original Greek language of the New Testament is explicit in confirming the person of the Holy Spirit.

In the original Greek language the word for “S/spirit”, pneuma, is neuter, as stated earlier. But this has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not the Holy Spirit is an impersonal thing any more than the masculine kosmos (“world”) indicates that the world is a personal being. It’s not the Greek language that establishes personhood; it’s the contexts describing the Holy Spirit that establish it.

The word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is neuter and would naturally take neuter pronouns to have grammatical agreement.

This is absolutely true. And it absolutely does in the Greek.

Yet, in many cases, masculine pronouns are found (e.g., John 15:26; 16:13-14).

Three masculine (demonstrative) pronouns are used in these cases (and one more each in 14:26 and 16:83) because they refer to the noun paraklētos, which is a masculine noun! Moreover, this is hardly “many cases”, as these are only found in the Farewell Discourse (John 14:16—16:15) when the pronoun refers to paraklētos. The Farewell Discourse is also interspersed with neuter pronouns in the Greek when referring to pneuma. For example, in John 14:17, the neuter relative pronoun hò is used once and the neuter ‘personal’ pronoun auto is used twice as substitutes for to pneuma at the very beginning of the verse—though all three are translated as the masculine “him” in English. This is to indicate personhood in English. To reiterate, these three neuter pronouns are translated as masculine pronouns in English solely to signify personhood for English readers. This is an issue in translation, not in Greek.

Grammatically, there is no other way to understand the pronouns of the New Testament related to the Holy Spirit—He is referred to as a “He,” as a person.

I cannot know if the author is being dishonest or is obtusely conflating issues. As noted just above, the English translations generally use “he” when a pronoun is substituted for the Holy Spirit. But the Greek pronouns here agree in grammatical gender with their antecedents, their referents. And in the Greek New Testament any pronoun which refers to pneuma is also neuter to match in grammatical gender.

So how do we Biblically establish the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit? Murray J. Harris in his exegetical commentary on John’s Gospel provides some helpful introductory apologetics here (the author translates paraklētos “Helper”):

The fact that the pronouns referring to the Spirit…are neuter no more establishes the impersonality of the Spirit than the masculine pronouns ekeinos in 14:26; 15:26; 16:8, 13-14 and auton in 16:7 [ED: referring to paraklētos] prove the personality of the Spirit. In each case the gender of the pronouns is grammatically conditioned…The personality of the Spirit should be established without appeal to the masculine pronouns in the passages cited above. (One can argue, for example, that since Jesus as Helper [implied by allos, “another” in 14:16] is personal, one would assume that the Spirit as “another Helper” is also personal. And the other personal roles attributed to the Spirit, such as teaching and reminding [14:26], testifying [15:26], guiding [16:13], and informing [16:14-15], would certainly be strange if the Spirit were simply an impersonal force).4

In short, it’s not the Greek grammar that argues for the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit. It’s the contexts describing Him. A few other contexts in this regard:

  • The Holy Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30).
  • The Holy Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3), which is tantamount to lying to God (Acts 5:4).
  • The Holy Spirit is sent jointly by the Father (John 14:26) and the Son (John 15:26; 16:7) and is received by believers (1Cor 6:19, etc.), in whom the Spirit performs some of these personal functions.
  • The Spirit’s Deity finds affirmation in the sharing of the one Divine Name with the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19). If the Father and Son are ‘Persons’, then it most likely follows that the Holy Spirit is, as well. Though equality of ‘Personhood’ cannot definitively be established by this one verse, it’s this verse in concert with other verses that help make the case. As another example of such, Jesus is called paraklētos (1John 2:1), while Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as ‘another paraklētos’ (John 14:16).

No Good Apologies for Bad Apologetics

Using bad apologetics can harm the Christian cause. Anyone who is against Trinitarianism specifically or Christianity generally can use that bad pronoun argument against the Christian faith. Such bad arguments can make us seem like the ignorant and unintelligent (or intellectually dishonest) people that many non-believers accuse Christians of being.

Such faulty arguments used in attempts to bolster a theological position undermine proper Christian apologetics. Let’s endeavor to do better. I know we can!

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1 But logos has a more expansive range of meanings. For those unaware, many Word/Faith teachers assert (among other things) the false dichotomy that rhēma denotes the ‘higher’ word from God for believers only while logos indicates the written Scriptures as a whole for everyone, including non-believers. Not only is this reductionistic, it fails to account for the fact that the verbal form (legō) of logos is used quite often preceding speech (so-and-so said [legō], “…”). A good example to refute this dichotomy presents itself in Matthew 12:36: But I say (legō) to you that every idle word (rhēma) that men speak (legō) they will give account/reckoning (logos) for in the day of judgment. Moreover, rhēma is found in only 65 verses in the New Testament as compared to over 300 for logos, while the verbal form legō occurs over 2000 times.

2 I always place single quotes around ‘Person’ when referring to individual hypostases of the Father, Son, or Spirit in order to indicate a distinction between modern ideas of personhood and those of Trinitarianism. The Father, Son, and Spirit should not be reduced to such secular notions.

3 These five occurrences of the masculine demonstrative pronoun (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:8, 13, 14), plus one masculine personal pronoun, are the only stand-alone pronouns in this entire section referring to paraklētos. There are some others implied in verbs (all finite verbs encode person and number, but not gender), though some are ambiguous as to their intended referent (see previous article Another Paraclete?, especially endnote 10). There are also neuter pronouns—specific and implied—referencing either the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of truth in the Farewell Discourse.

4 John, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), p 261 (Greek transliterated). And see note 3 above and my previous article related to this subject.

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