In our ongoing look at the eschatology in the the Letters of the New Testament (which started here), we’ll continue with the letters of Paul. This time, we’ll briefly look at 1 Corinthians.
First Corinthians was written from Ephesus in roughly 55 CE. That’s a little over twenty years after Jesus and about ten years before the beginning of the Jewish-Roman war (66 CE). In this letter, Paul makes several statements about the followers of Jesus in Corinth experiencing the return of Jesus (1.7-8; 3.12-14; etc.). In chapter 7, he wrote:
1 Corinthians 7.29-31 (CEB): This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: The time has drawn short. From now on, those who have wives should be like people who don’t have them. Those who are sad should be like people who aren’t crying. Those who are happy should be like people who aren’t happy. Those who buy something should be like people who don’t have possessions. Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away (emphasis added).
The reason I highlight this section is because this, too, is something that Jesus stated would happen before his return. When referring to the coming devastation and suffering, he said, “If that time weren’t shortened, nobody would be rescued. But for the sake of the ones whom God chose, that time will be cut short” (Matthew 24.22; emphasis added). Like we saw in our brief look at the Thessalonians letters, most of what Jesus told his follower to watch out for was already fulfilled or taking place when Paul was wrote those letters. And here’s Paul, roughly thirty years later after Jesus (only a few years after the letters to the Thessalonians), telling the Corinthians, “The time has drawn short.”
Again, this isn’t some general statement to an unknown (read: future) generation of followers of The Way of Jesus. Paul was writing to real people in the first century who were going through real persecution at the hands of the Jews and Romans. Paul is comforting them with these words. It would be irresponsible to insist that he was really referring to another generation of people a couple thousand years in the future. That’s like him saying, “I know your suffering, and that’s horrible. But there will be a generation of people who will be really suffering, and for them, G‑d will shorten time so they won’t have to suffer long.” I just can’t imagine that.
Whenever we study a passage, it must have relevance for the original intended audience. If it doesn’t, then there’s no certainty about who it’s for.
“It could be timeless,” I can hear someone say and that’s fine as far as it goes. But that means it also has to be for the original audience. There has to be some application for them, too. If not, it’s useless for them and it makes no sense for the writer to address the letter to them. Again, the letter was addressed to them, dealing with their concerns, and emphasizing things they will be dealing with.
“Look,” someone may say, “you’re way off. Paul stated that ‘this world in its present form is passing away.’ He was obviously mistaken — the world’s still here!”
While I’ve covered this previously in this series, I want to make a couple of points here. First, I’ve said this several times already, the Common English Bible does a really job at, not only translating the words, but their intended meaning. Paul wrote, “this world in its present form…” The word is σχῆμα (schema) and means exactly that — form or outward appearance. So Paul’s not talking about creation, but something else.
What we need to ask ourselves is in what “world” was Paul living? Paul was living in two different worlds, at least — the Roman world and the Old Covenantal Jewish world. We must remember, too, that while Paul was a Roman citizen, he was a Jew. And in the Jewish world there were “this age” and the “age to come,” i.e., the Messianic age. The “world” to which Paul was referring was the Old Covenant world or age. The age Jesus stated would be coming to an end (see Matthew 13.36-43, 47-50; cf. Luke 18.29-30). The disciples asked when that age would end (Matthew 24.3). It was that age that was still in going on but was “close to disappearing” (Hebrews 8).
Paul’s “religious” world was soon coming to an end. Jesus said the time would be “shortened” before it passed away. Paul told the followers of The Way of Jesus in Corinth that the had “drawn short” and the form of the world was “passing away.” The event’s the same. The timing’s the same. They both contain the same “signs.” Therefore, there’s no reason to look any further than the same event especially since Jesus’ prediction hadn’t yet come to pass. Paul, following Jesus’ lead, was referring to the end of the Old Covenantal age, the end of “biblical Judaism” that would occur with the war between the Jews and Roman in the near future from when he wrote this letter.
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In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC